Meet the three Republicans hoping to ride a GOP wave in Iowa’s 3rd District
In the back room of the Machine Shed Restaurant in Urbandale, local conservative activists and voters filled the tables and booths to digest some politics with their bacon and eggs.
The Westside Conservative Club meets twice a month at the Machine Shed to hear from a rotating cast of political candidates and GOP officials.
Last month, the speakers were the Republicans running for the 3rd District — Gary Leffler, Zach Nunn and Nicole Hasso — who had a lot to say about spending and inflation.
“I can tell you the devastating effects that inflation is currently having on our farming community and our ag community, when the price of anhydrous last fall went from $500 to $600 a ton,” Leffler said.
“We have to take back our country,” Hasso said. “We have to stop this spending - out of control spending. We are leaving a legacy of $30 trillion not to our kids, but to our grandkids and our great grandkids.”
“[Democrats are] talking about doing another $2 trillion when they come back this summer, although thank goodness there’s actual Democrats who even recognize that’s a disaster for the country,” Nunn said.
The Iowa Republican Party is going into this year’s mid-terms with the goal of going four-for-four in elections for the U.S. House of Representatives. That would mean flipping the seat currently held by Rep. Cindy Axne in the 3rd District, which includes the Des Moines metro and much of south central Iowa.
At events and in debates, Republicans are already framing the race against Cindy Axne as a referendum on national issues like inflation and immigration. When it comes to choosing a GOP nominee, though, voters won’t find major differences on those issues among the candidates. Instead, what separates them is where they come from within the party.
Meet the candidates
Sen. Zach Nunn, R-Bondurant, stands apart as a member of the Iowa legislature’s Republican majority. In TV ads and campaign appearances, he highlights the legislature’s conservative record under Republican leadership.
“I’ve been a proven leader for you when it comes to balancing the budget of the state. Congress has not done that,” Nunn said in a debate on WHO-TV. “I’ve been a proven leader when it comes to cutting taxes for you, for more money in your pocket. I want to be able to do the same in Washington, D.C.”
Nunn has been in the legislature since 2015. He first joined the Iowa House before he was elected to the Iowa Senate. He’s an Air Force veteran and a squadron leader in the Iowa Air National Guard.
Other candidates talk about cutting taxes but Nunn points out he actually voted for the largest tax cut package in state history, which was passed this year.
“We’ve proven that we can do it here in Iowa and I would use Iowa as a playbook for what we can do for the entire country,” Nunn said. “When you look at our economy, we were one of the first ones to reopen. When you look at government overreach, we were one of the first ones to put kids back in schools.”
While Zach Nunn is running on his political experience, Nicole Hasso from Johnston is running on a lack of it. She says it when she introduces herself — she’s not a politician.
“I am a Christian, I am a conservative, I'm a wife, I'm a mom and I guess now I am a woman and a biologist,” Hasso said.
The “biologist” reference is one Hasso makes frequently. It comes from the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. A Republican senator asked her to define “woman.” Jackson answered that she’s a judge, not a biologist. Many conservatives now treat it as a punchline.
Culture war moments like that were Hasso’s path into the 3rd District race. She works in the financial industry and has never run for office before. She got into politics in the conservative uproar over the 1619 Project. The New York Times series, now a book, was created by Waterloo-native Nikole Hannah-Jones and traces the legacy of slavery throughout U.S. history.
As a Black woman, Hasso stands out among the project’s critics.
“I believe that project 1619 does not tell the whole truth of our history,” Hasso said. “And if you're going to teach our kids history you need to teach them the whole truth.”
Hasso testified in subcommittee meetings in the Iowa Legislature in favor of proposals to create voucher-style scholarships that families could use to enroll in private schools, and to give parents more influence over the books and other materials their children can and cannot access at school.
Nunn voted in favor of a Senate bill that included Gov. Kim Reynolds’ scholarship proposal and would have expanded parents’ influence over curriculum. It passed the Senate but did not reach the governor’s desk.
The third candidate in the race is Gary Leffler of West Des Moines. Leffler has done relatively little fundraising but is well known for his antique tractor with a patriotic paint job which he takes to parades and political events across the state.
“Iowa is grass roots, and I’m 100 percent grass roots,” Leffler said in the WHO debate.
Leffler is also the only candidate who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when rioters interrupted the certification of the presidential election. During a debate on KCCI in Des Moines he tried to separate himself and others who stayed out of the building from the mob that broke in.
“If you have approximately 1.2 million people who were there that day, approximately 700 people have been arrested,” Leffler said, although fact checkers say 1.2 million exaggerates the size of the crowd. “Those people that went into the building, they broke the law, they should suffer the full consequences of the law.”
Leffler also calls himself the biggest Donald Trump supporter in the race, although the former president has not made an endorsement.
Rep. Cindy Axne has won two terms in the 3rd District, but it looks different now that the boundaries have been redrawn. It leaves Axne covering new ground to meet new voters. Out of the 21 counties in the district, nine are new. Clarke, Davis, Decatur, Lucas, Monroe, Wayne, Appanoose and Wapello counties in south central Iowa used to be part of Iowa’s 2nd District.
“In a way you have an incumbent but you don’t have an incumbent, right?” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University. “The fact that most national observers consider the 3rd District a toss-up is something that favors Republicans and shows Democrats in some difficulty.”
May registration numbers for active and inactive voters show Democrats with a slight edge in the new district. The party break-down didn’t change much, with 35 percent of registered voters being Democrats and 32 percent Republicans.
But, according to Grandview University political science professor Bryan McQuide, the 2022 mid-terms were already seen as an uphill climb for Democratic candidates.
“People are really angry with [President Joe Biden],” McQuide said. “Biden has a low approval rating. The Democrats are disliked across the country. Then you have redistricting on top of that.”
McQuide points out that it was a wave election in 2018 when Cindy Axne flipped the seat to Democrats. The winner of this primary will be hoping to ride a Republican wave in November and flip it back.