David Young’s reputation in Congress was that of a moderate Republican (even when his voting record didn’t match it) willing to out-work the competition by visiting all 16 counties in Iowa’s 3rd District every month.
Then, in 2018, he was hit by the blue wave that swept in a new House Democratic majority. Cindy Axne, a first-time congressional candidate and small business owner, knew she faced an uphill battle against Young — he was reelected in 2016 by a 14-point margin. But she soon earned the pedigree of a relentless campaigner who could out-do one of Congress’ most hardworking members. On Election Day 2018, Axne defeated Young by two points.
Today, election forecasters consider the rematch a toss-up, though some see it as one of the tougher seats for Republicans to retake. While all four of Iowa’s congressional districts were carried by Donald Trump in 2016, the 3rd District moved the least in favor of Republicans, swinging just eight points for Trump (Obama won it by four in 2012, then Trump by four in 2016). Eastern Iowa’s 1st and 2nd District both swung 17 points each for Republicans.
The Des Moines-anchored 3rd District has been where Iowa Democrats have seen their biggest gains during the Trump years, yet Young, in his bid this year to retake his old seat, has adopted a markedly different tone than in past years — one that is very pro-Trump.
“President Trump has taught us how to fight, give us more confidence,” Young said. “You gotta take it to ’em, and I am.”
In the Jan. 21 interview on the conservative Simon Conway Show, Congressman Tom Emmer, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said “David now realizes the country hangs in the balance.”
Conway, the show’s host, described him as a “completely different David Young to the one that we elected to Congress.”
“Everybody who had ever met David Young was always: ‘He’s such a nice guy,'” Conway said. “And he is a nice guy; he’s a real gentleman. But you’re not in a gentlemanly business anymore.”
Running up a significant margin in Polk County, home to Des Moines and its fast-growing suburbs, was key to Axne’s victory two years ago and will be crucial again this November. Iowa’s largest county was the only one of the district’s 16 she carried in 2018, but her 16-point margin there was enough. Compared to the 2016 Democratic candidate, however, she did dramatically narrow the gap in several counties, including Dallas, which contains the western suburbs of Des Moines, where she lost by about 2,500 votes compared to Jim Mowrer’s 9,828.
In 2018, Democrats won support from 59% of college-educated women, many of whom live in the nation’s suburbs. That figure outpaces Barack Obama’s 46% from 2012 and Hillary Clinton’s 51% in 2016.
“The orderly subdivisions and kid-friendly communities that ring the nation’s cities have become a deathtrap for Republicans,” politics reporter Mark Baraback wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “as college-educated and upper-income women flee the party in droves, costing the GOP its House majority and sapping the party’s strength in state capitals and local governments nationwide.”
Given the existing hurdles, why has Young tied himself so closely to an unpopular president, one who, in particular, is losing ground in the coveted suburbs?
Yes, President Donald Trump is popular with Republicans. A June New York Times/Siena College poll shows 90% of Republicans intend to vote for him. But with college-educated voters, he is underwater. The poll of 1,337 registered voters show only 30% of voters with a bachelor’s degree currently plan to vote for the president, compared to 57% who say they support Joe Biden.
Since launching his campaign one year ago, Young has repeatedly shown how he intends to run to the right, in a district that includes Iowa’s largest city, its growing suburbs and several rural counties in the southwest corner of the state.
“In 10 to 20 years, I don’t want to look back and say I did nothing in the battle of 2020 when it was capitalism versus — and I’m not an edgy guy or fear-monger — but versus socialism,” Young said in a 2019 interview. “I want to say I was at the front-line kicking tail … You got to fight because the other side is bringing out their knives all the time. And I’m tired of having my hand tied behind my back.”
He repeatedly touted the endorsement of Trump on Twitter and has bragged about his near perfect voting record in line with Trump’s positions.
David Young (@YoungForIowa) is a champion for Iowa! He helped us pass the Trump Tax Cuts and he will always fight for our Small Businesses, Military, the Second Amendment and our Great Farmers! David has my Complete & Total Endorsement! #IA03 https://t.co/uUjvZvLN8h
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 22, 2020
— David Young (@YoungForIowa) June 3, 2020
“When I was serving, out of the Iowa delegation, I voted the most with President Trump — over Steve King, over Joni Ernst, over [Chuck] Grassley, over [Rod] Blum, and so my record is pretty clear on my conservative credentials,” Young said.
An analysis of lawmakers’ voting history during the Trump Administration backs up Young’s claim. Young, Blum, King, Ernst and Grassley all were in office during the 115th Congress (2017-18). During that time, Young “voted in line with Trump’s position” 99% of the time.
This all came without Young facing a serious primary opponent.
If the June 2 primary results are any indication of how the Nov. 3 general election will play out, Axne is in a strong position. Across the district’s 16 counties, she received 76,681 votes, more than Young and his primary opponent combined. Young received 39,103 votes and fellow Republican Bill Schafer earned 16,904 votes.
This disparity tracks with the voter registration totals in the 3rd District, where 192,631 Iowans are active registered Democrats compared to 177,452 Republicans. “No Party” voters sit at 152,607. At the start of 2020, the gap between registered Democrats and Republicans was only 1,879 voters (171,364 vs. 169,485). Five months later, that divide has swelled to 15,179 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Jackie Wellman has known Axne since her days as a precinct captain for Barack Obama. She helped organize volunteers for Axne’s 2018 campaign, building up a strong base of support in Wellman’s West Des Moines, where Democrats have taken full advantage of suburban voting trends.
Wellman is optimistic Axne will perform better in the district’s rural counties this year now that constituents have gotten the chance to know her.
“I think she might even do better in the rural counties this time because David Young has aligned himself with Trump, and people are so disgusted,” said Wellman. “I’ve personally heard from a lot of Republicans that are like, ‘Oh, we didn’t like Hillary but we screwed up voting for Trump.’ Hopefully they’re going to associated David with him.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
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