How One of the Most At-Risk Democrats in Congress Hangs On

Holding a blue seat in a red-tinged place like Iowa’s Third Congressional District takes discipline. It takes a relentless focus on the folks back home, which is why you won’t see Cindy Axne yukking it up on “Morning Joe” or rubbing elbows with Jake Tapper on CNN. It takes doing who-knows-how-many hits on rural radio stations that might reach just a few hundred people at a time.

Axne is a living case study in political survival. Donald Trump carried her district in both of his presidential runs. In 2020, a bad year for House Democrats, she hung on to her seat by fewer than 7,000 votes.

This year, Axne has one of the hardest re-election tasks of any member of Congress. She’s the lone Democrat in Iowa’s delegation to Washington, representing a state that has moved sharply rightward. Thanks to redistricting, she just inherited nine additional counties that voted for Trump in 2020. At town hall meetings, she proudly tells constituents that hers is “the No. 1 targeted race in the nation.” Forecasters rate it a “tossup,” but privately, Democratic strategists acknowledge she might be doomed.

What’s her strategy for survival? Although Axne doesn’t articulate them explicitly, we culled these unspoken rules from an interview in her office on Capitol Hill. It’s the kind of advice President Biden could use as he tries to reverse drooping poll numbers that threaten to bring down his entire party:

  • Struggling to explain your policies? Visualize the voter you want to reach: “Take these big things and bring it down to that one individual. If that mom’s not sitting in the audience, put that mom in your head.”

  • Selling your infrastructure bill? Talk about convenience, not how many program dollars you allocated: “That doesn’t resonate. It resonates that I gave you 40 minutes of extra time when this bridge is repaired. That’s huge.”

You won’t hear much soaring rhetoric about saving American democracy from Axne, either. The voters are her customers, reflecting her business background. “I’ve been a manager my whole life,” she said. “I’ve run customer service departments and retail.”

And the way she figures it, the burden is on her to earn the customer’s approval. “It’s my job to go to them, to show them that they can trust me and that I deserve their vote,” she said.

She urges the president to adopt that same retail mentality: Leave the mess in Washington behind, go into local communities and bring politics to a human scale.

As she put it, “Come out and say, ‘Folks, here’s where we’re at.’”

And where her customers are at right now, Axne said, can be summed up with one word: “Tired.”

They’re tired of the pandemic. Tired of the disruptions it has brought to their families. Tired of their packages not being delivered on time. It’s the thread running through all the complaints she hears about, whether the issue is education or jobs or masks.

“I’ve never seen anything impact our psyche so much like this, right?” she said. “There’s just a lot that families are coping with. It’s just hard for them to see some of the benefits that Democrats have delivered — because honestly, Democrats have delivered, I’ve delivered — but it’s hard to see when things still aren’t back to normal.”

If and when they are, Axne said, “We’ve got to be really loud about it and make people feel comfortable and understand: ‘Go back to normal, folks.’”

Axne has had to think a lot about how to explain the major legislative packages she has helped to pass and urges the White House to break them down into relatable pieces.

She comes back to her infrastructure example, referring to bridges in Iowa that are so poorly maintained that they can’t bear the weight of a bus full of schoolchildren, leading to lengthy detours. “You know, ask any parent what their mornings are like, and would they like 40 minutes more? Heck, yeah.”

Axne was first elected to Congress in 2018, as part of that year’s anti-Trump wave.

She was a longtime Iowa state government official, an M.B.A. holder who started a consulting firm before running for Congress. If you ask her what’s on the minds of Iowa farmers, be prepared for an impromptu seminar on the intricacies of soybean processing.

In 2019, when flooding devastated communities in her district along the Missouri River, Axne was everywhere: touring busted levees, lobbying for federal aid. It earned her some credit in the suburban areas around Council Bluffs and Indianola, helping her eke out that win in 2020.

In a stroke of bad luck for Axne, those areas along the river are no longer her responsibility. After Iowa’s latest round of nonpartisan redistricting, they’ve become part of the district of Representative Randy Feenstra, a Republican.

Her first task this year was to visit her new counties, which together voted for Trump by nearly 19,000 votes. She doesn’t have to win them — just keep the margins small enough while pumping up votes in her stronghold of Des Moines, the Iowa capital. But she does have to create some distance from national Democrats, which she tries to accomplish through humor.

“I am not Nancy Pelosi,” she joked at a recent town-hall-style meeting in Ottumwa, one of 74 she’s held since her first election. “I’m a foot taller. I’m from a different state. I don’t wear five-inch heels.”

Axne would like to see Democrats break the Build Back Better Act, their stalled social policy bill, into “chunks of coordinated policy.” And in the meantime, she wants Biden to get out there and hear from his disaffected customers directly.

“It’s not that he doesn’t understand it,” she said. “It’s just that there’s so much happening at this high level that sometimes it’s really hard to just bring it down to that very micro level. But that micro level is what’s adding up across the country.”

  • Ryan Mac and Lisa Lerer profiled Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor who is seeking to become the right’s would-be kingmaker.

  • Trump’s longtime accounting firm has cut ties with his family business amid an investigation into the Trump Organization’s financial practices, Ben Protess and William K. Rashbaum report.

  • Ukraine’s president hinted at a major concession on Monday and Russia’s foreign minister said talks would continue, suggesting room for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. For more, go here for the latest updates on the diplomatic efforts to avert a Russian invasion.

  • In Opinion, J. Michael Luttig, a retired judge, called on his fellow conservatives to embrace reform of the Electoral Count Act, the 1887 law that governs how Congress counts the votes of the Electoral College.

As Republicans gear up for midterm elections that they hope will give them control of both chambers of Congress, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the man who hopes to become their House speaker, is set to speak in Palm Beach, Fla. this week to some of the megadonors expected to finance the party’s efforts this fall and in 2024.

The occasion is the semiannual gathering of the American Opportunity Alliance, a coalition of major donors spearheaded by the New York hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer that has worked mostly behind the scenes to shape the Republican Party.

Also expected to speak is Mike Pompeo, who served as secretary of state under President Donald Trump and is said to be considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, which could pit him against Trump.

Other prospective 2024 Republican candidates attended a meeting of the alliance last year in Colorado, including Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador. Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who heads the Republican Party’s Senate campaign arm, also spoke to the alliance’s donors last year.

The Palm Beach gathering is expected to draw candidates vying for Republican congressional nominations, including Herschel Walker (who is running for Senate in Georgia), Katie Britt (Senate in Alabama), Jane Timken (Senate in Ohio) and Morgan Ortagus (House in Tennessee).

The donors in the alliance are likely to be assiduously courted by Republican candidates for a range of offices and to be solicited for donations to super PACs and party committees.

Their giving and associations will be closely watched as the party and its donor class grapple with whether — and how — to move on from Trump.

Singer was among the most aggressive Republican donors in seeking to block Trump from winning the Republican nomination in 2016. A conservative website he financed paid for early research into Trump’s ties to Russia. But Singer later donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural fund and visited the Trump White House on multiple occasions.

Other donors who have been involved in the American Opportunity Alliance include the brokerage titan Charles Schwab, the hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin and Todd Ricketts, who served as finance chairman for the Republican National Committee under Trump.

Among the donors expected in Palm Beach are the former Trump cabinet officials Wilbur Ross, who served as commerce secretary, and Linda McMahon, who was administrator of the Small Business Administration.

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at

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