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Hinson hopes gas prices will carry her through her first reelection and hold 2nd District seat

Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 15, 2021.
Andrew Harnik
Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson was elected in 2020 to represent what was then Iowa's 1st Congressional District.

Republican U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson won her seat decisively in 2020. As she makes a case for reelection this November, she faces a tough race against Democratic challenger Liz Mathis.

The price at the pump hit a peak in June, and prices have been trending down. At the beginning of November, the average price of gas in Iowa was $3.76. But compared to the last few years, prices remain high. Congresswoman Ashley Hinson is making a bet that there’s still some interest left in the tank for the midterms.

“We have had this war on American energy since Day One of the Biden administration," Hinson told a crowd of supporters at a gas station in Robins. "He canceled the Keystone pipeline, for example. They stopped drilling on federal lands. They've been dipping into our strategic reserve at a rate we haven't seen in nearly 40 years. This puts us at a true disadvantage.”

While Hinson was talking to folks filling up at the pump, Bill Dahlsten was inside munching on a doughnut.

“Well, I've got two old vehicles I drive. An 11-year-old Prius and a Ford Ranger that's old enough to vote," he said. "But it costs as much to run that Prius now, as it did two years ago to run that old Ford Ranger."

Dahlsten got out of high school in ’72. He lived through the worst days of the oil crisis of the 1970s.

“Prices went through the roof, inflation went nuts. But at least I had a job and my wages went up every year. Now it's not," Dahlsten said, "and I'm seeing it's deja vu all over again.”

A student at Wapsie Valley High shows U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson his project at the school's Center for Advanced Professional Studies program.
Zachary Oren Smith
IPR News
A student at Wapsie Valley High shows U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson his project at the school's Center for Advanced Professional Studies program.

Over in the corner of the gas station, Greg McGivern sipped coffee. McGivern retired from the Linn County Sheriff’s Office after 31 years and now works as a detective at the nearby Robins Police Department. He said he comes from a JFK-era Democratic-voting family. But since the Clinton years, he has voted Republican. And he plans to vote for Hinson this year.

“I don't like this extreme right-wing, extreme left-wing stuff," McGivern said. "Yes, we need to get back to basics in our country. And, I think that that's going to be accomplished by people who can work together.”

For McGivern, Hinson’s message about lowering gas prices and inflation struck true. And on the campaign trail, it’s a line she’s hitting everywhere she can.

Like Hinson, Democratic challenger state Sen. Liz Mathis had a long career as a TV journalist in eastern Iowa. In 2011, she was elected to the Iowa Senate representing municipalities outside of Cedar Rapids including Robins, Marion, Bertram and Ely.

“Pushing past the post is about lowering costs for families. It's about preserving Medicare and Social Security and making sure that people are protected," Mathis said during a visit to Cedar Rapids. "It's a social safety net and making sure that we protect women's reproductive rights. That's really what this race is all about. “

Mathis is challenging Hinson in a changed congressional district. There are slightly more registered Democrats in the district than there are Republicans. And according to the October Iowa Poll on a generic ballot, 48 percent of likely voters say they would prefer a Democratic candidate for the House seat, while 46 percent say they would vote for a Republican. In July, the same poll had Republicans up 10 percentage points.

Democratic challenger State Sen. Liz Mathis rallies voters in Cedar Rapids for an early vote drive on Oct. 19. She faces U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson in a race for Iowa's 2nd Congressional District.
Zachary Oren Smith
IPR News
Democratic challenger State Sen. Liz Mathis rallies voters in Cedar Rapids for an early vote drive on Oct. 19.

Sami Sheetz is a Democrat running for an Iowa House seat in Cedar Rapids. When asked what works in populous Cedar Rapids, he said Mathis’ labor bonna fides are a big plus.

“Linn County, Black Hawk County and DubuqueCounty are the top three labor union per capita counties in the State of Iowa," he said. "So somebody like Liz or some of the really great Democrats we have running across the ticket that are able to connect to workers and promote working class issues, they're going to do well in this district."

But it’s not all been economics and kitchen table issues. Hinson took on the Linn-Marr School District for its new policy for transgender students. The policy created a “gender support plan” for seventh graders and older to allow them to use their chosen names and pronouns at school. To a packed room of parents, Hinson decried the move.

“They passed a policy that allows for a boy to go to school and say that he wants to be a girl. They can use the girl's bathroom, girl's locker room and even room with the girl on an overnight field trip, if they so choose," Hinson said. "And the kicker is, they're not going to tell the parents. So I think that's inherently wrong.”

At the stop in Hiawatha, Hinson’s outrage at the district earned big applause at a rally with Gov. Kim Reynolds. But it also gained her some critics. Allison Carr is a teacher. She’s concerned about what Hinson’s rallies about transgender students are signaling to children in her district.

“I have found Representative Hinson's behavior with regard to (transgender) students in schools to be really reprehensible," Carr said. "I just think it's hateful and hurtful. And I don't understand how she can drum up that kind of vitriol against children who are just trying to live their lives.”

While not a mainstay in her speeches, Hinson readily offers her opposition to abortion. In comparison, Mathis wants to see a national right to an abortion codified by Congress. She’s attacked Hinson for supporting the Life at Conception Act, which would effectively ban abortions nationally. The bill did not have exceptions for rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. But Hinson has said she supports these exeptions.

Emma Aquino-Nemecek immigrated from the Philippines three decades ago. When she was 14, Aquino-Nemecek says she was raped at gunpoint and became pregnant. She carried her child to term. She told this story to explain why she opposes abortion in all cases except when the life of the mother is in danger.

"I decided to raise my daughter and I think this, she has nothing to do with what happened to me and I agree with Ashley about pro-life issues," Aquino-Nemecek said.

For the last decade, residents of northeastern Iowa have seen their representation ping-pong from one party to the other.

“The time that an incumbent is most vulnerable is the first time that he or she is up for reelection," said Karen Kedrowski, the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.

Kedrowski pointed out that in 2018 Democratic U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer was able to flip the district. She beat out Republican incumbent Rod Blum. Finkenauer served for a short two years before Hinson decisively beat her in 2020.

"Now, the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. Ashely Hinson is the one-term incumbent who is facing a pretty strong challenger in Liz Mathis," she said.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa