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Nunn looks to flip Iowa’s 3rd District with a focus on inflation

Republican Zach Nunn listens to Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Florida, address his supporters at a rally held outside the Dallas County courthouse in Adel on October 7, 2022.
Grant Gerlock
Republican Zach Nunn listens to Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Florida, address his supporters at a rally held outside the Dallas County courthouse in Adel on Oct. 7.

In Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, Republican Zach Nunn is looking to unseat Democrat Cindy Axne and a big focus of his campaign is higher prices.

Polling shows the economy is the top issue on the minds of most voters in the midterm elections — inflation, in particular.

On the campaign trail, Republican Zach Nunn doesn’t let voters forget it.

“We're in a situation right now where we are at harvest season, where we saw coming in folks in trucks and combines and the price of diesel for them is not going down,” Nunn said to supporters who filled the back room of the Westside Bar and Grille in Earlham, about 30 miles west of Des Moines.

Nunn is running against incumbent Democrat Cindy Axne in Iowa’s redrawn 3rd District, which includes the Des Moines metro area. It also added rural parts of southern Iowa. Those are some of the poorest counties in the state and could be places that are more sensitive to Nunn’s focus on how costs have gone up.

“Your insurance going up. Your ability to afford that first home for a couple of new homebuyers could become vastly out of reach because of the rate of inflation, Nunn said. “The highest inflation rate in my lifetime, 8 percent.”

A map of Iowa is shown outlining the new Congressional Districts.
After redistricting, Iowa's 3rd District kept the Des Moines metro in Polk and Dallas counties and added much of the south central part of the state.

Or at least the highest inflation since Nunn was a kid. He was born in 1979 when inflation was in the double-digits.

Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District race between Nunn and Rep. Cindy Axne is viewed as one of the most tightly contested races in the country. With Democrats holding a slim majority in the House, flipping the 3rd could help swing control of Congress, and it could come down to how voters feel about their bank accounts.

Nunn puts the blame for inflation squarely on spending bills passed by Democrats, although economists say pandemic stimulus is just one of many factors in the price hikes.

In her own campaign stops, Axne defends laws like the American Rescue Plan which sent billions in federal funding to Iowa. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has dedicated portions of that funding toward things like affordable housing and broadband.

But Sandra Schepper who was at the meet-up in Earlham said she’s supporting Zach Nunn in hopes that Republicans will take the House and cut back programs approved by Democrats.

“I would love for them to be able to undo many of the bills that were passed that spent been trillions and trillions of dollars purporting to help inflation, when it was really a smaller version of the Green New Deal,” she said.

State Sen. Zach Nunn laughs at a comment made by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich on October 4, 2022.
Grant Gerlock
State Sen. Zach Nunn laughs at a comment made by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Oct. 4.

In 2018, Cindy Axne beat two-term Republican Rep. David Young to win the 3rd District as part of a blue wave backlash against President Donald Trump.

Here in 2022, economic anxiety — led by inflation — gives Nunn hope that he’ll be part of a Republican wave to win back the House. Axne’s seat is one of a handful held by Democrats that are now leaning in favor of their Republican challengers.

There are several reasons Axne is vulnerable, according to Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford. There is a lot of new territory in the 3rd District, and voters who don’t know her. Also, Republicans usually turn out better in midterm elections.

But there’s also inflation, which Goldford said plays differently with voters than other economic issues. Unlike unemployment, it directly affects practically everyone.

“Voters are angry and voters are fearful and they want somebody to blame, and the ‘in’ party is always an easy target,” Goldford said. “Democrats can say the economy's booming, we've got lots of jobs. That's the only bright spot. But the real thing that affects everybody when you drive by the gas station, of course, is prices and inflation and that hurts people a lot.”

Third District Rep. Cindy Axne talks with constituents at a town hall in Clive on October 5, 2022.
Grant Gerlock
3rd District Rep. Cindy Axne talks with constituents at a town hall in Clive on Oct. 5.

Congresswoman Axne said she agrees that higher prices for groceries and gas are a problem. She pushes back, though, on a rhetorical question that Zach Nunn likes to throw out in campaign appearances. That is, “Are you better off than you were two years ago?”

“I think that's a pandering question and I think Iowans will realize that, yeah, there are some things we still need to get fixed and we have a lot to work on,” Axne said. “You can't tell me that your family hasn't done better when we were able to support folks during COVID and make sure they kept jobs.”

Axne said the funding that Republicans criticize has shown direct benefits in local communities. For example, emergency grants approved in a law aimed at assisting cultural venues, nonprofits and small businesses during the pandemic kept the movie theater open in the town of Atlantic.

“This isn’t just a job for these folks, right? This is a key piece of their town,” she said.

Axne said lawmakers should keep working to bring down inflation by on-shoring supply chains and by going after corporations that have seen their profits grow as prices rise.

When asked how he would respond to inflation, Nunn said he would repeat what Republicans have done in the Iowa Legislature. He highlights the flat income tax and cut to the corporate tax rate passed in the last session.

Nunn said in a debate on KMA Radio that, if elected, he would look to limit spending and reduce taxes at the federal level.

“Let's do what works in Iowa,” Nunn said. “Put money back in Iowans' pockets. Watch our economy, our hometowns, our families grow.”

With inflation weighing on voters’ minds, the results in the 3rd District race could turn on who voters believe has the best solution to bring prices down.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa