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Cindy Axne and Zach Nunn cover abortion, inflation in 3rd District debate

Democrat Cindy Axne is running for reelection against Republican Zach Nunn.
Grant Gerlock
Democrat Cindy Axne is running for reelection against Republican Zach Nunn.

Democrat Cindy Axne and Republican Zach Nunn took the stage at the auditorium in the State Historical Building Thursday night to debate their positions on abortion and the economy. They also took turns repeating attacks that have already been churning on political ads.

Axne is running for a third term in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes the Des Moines area as well as much of south central Iowa. Nunn, a state senator from Bondurant, is running for Congress for the first time.

The race is considered one that could swing control of the U.S. House in the November midterms.

During the hour-long debate on KCCI-TV, co-moderator Eric Hanson asked whether state or federal lawmakers should be in the position of deciding at what point in a pregnancy women can or cannot seek an abortion.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the way for new abortion laws when it overturned the constitutional right to an abortion at the federal level in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Zach Nunn said states should decide what happens next with abortion rights, and that the issue should go to a statewide vote.

“Congresswoman, this is not your decision. This is not my decision. This is Iowans’ decision. We should give them the opportunity to take a vote, have their voice heard and move forward,” Nunn said. “Unfortunately you tried to take that away from them with the vote that you took in Washington, D.C., right after the Dobbs case.”

That vote was for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which Axne has voted to support twice. The bill would preempt states from placing restrictions on abortion access, and would codify abortion rights based on Roe v. Wade. It failed to pass in the U.S. Senate.

In response to whether state or federal lawmakers should decide on abortion access, Axne said neither.

“This should be left to women,” Axne said. “With the help of their doctor and their family and no one else. This shouldn’t be a decision that states get to make. This is a decision that women get to make.”

Axne called Nunn “extreme” for raising his hand in a primary debate when the candidates were asked whether they would support a total ban on abortion. Her campaign has targeted Nunn over that debate moment in frequent TV ads.

Nunn said Thursday night that he supports “the mother and the baby,” and has supported exceptions to abortion limits in the past.

As a state senator, Nunn has voted for restrictions including waiting periods and a ban on abortions after only six weeks into a pregnancy, which at the time was the strictest abortion law passed in the country. That law includes exceptions if the mother experiences a medical emergency or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. It remains blocked in court.

Nunn opened the debate by targeting Axne and the Biden administration on inflation, which he blames largely on spending packages passed by Democrats in Congress.

The 3rd District includes counties with some of the highest poverty rates in the state. Nunn said higher prices for things like gas and groceries cut into family budgets.

“It’s been difficult for parents like myself and our 10-year-old minivan to be able to drive around town and just afford, are we going to be able to cook out tonight? Are we going to be able to fill up the car?” Nunn said.

Axne said she agrees Congress should do more to deal with higher consumer prices, while also pointing to Iowa’s low unemployment rate as a sign of economic strength.

She said laws passed by Democrats to control prescription drug costs for people in Medicare, to grow renewable energy production, and to increase microchip manufacturing in the U.S. show that her party takes the issue seriously.

“I know the price of gas, I know the price of milk and I sure know the price of bread because I have two boys that eat a heck of a lot of food,” Axne said. “So I certainly understand the pain that Iowans and Americans are facing and we’re continually working, and I’m continually working, to bring those prices down.”

Nunn criticized President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive student loan debt up to $20,000 for many borrowers, saying it is unfair to others who worked or joined the military to pay their way through school.

Axne said she does not completely agree with the executive order, but supports parts of it including a cap on spending more than 5 percent of discretionary income each month to pay down federal student loans.

Axne defended a vote she made by proxy in favor of the Inflation Reduction Act while travelling with her family in France. She claimed the vote came up unexpectedly during a summer recess and pointed out that dozens of other lawmakers also voted on the bill remotely through the proxy process, which was instituted during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nunn said a $2,500 campaign contribution from the political action committee of agribusiness giant Syngenta shows his support in the agriculture industry not devotion to Chinese leaders as ads have claimed. Syngenta was purchased by a state-owned Chinese chemical company in 2017.

It was the only televised debate scheduled between Axne and Nunn for the midterm election. A radio debate will be aired by KMA in Shenandoah on Sunday night.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa