Rep. Cindy Axne’s position on inflation has taken a sharp turn since ice cream season.
Over the summer, when a constituent asked the Iowa District 3 Congresswoman if she was “concerned about the rising gas prices and the rise in the cost of consumer goods here in Iowa,” Axne assured him he shouldn’t worry about temporary increases. “Our economy is on a great track right now,” the Democratic lawmaker told attendees of an Ankeny, Iowa ice cream shop town hall in July 2021. “[Republicans are]Comparing any costs to last year. I’d say we had a few things increase because we were in the middle of COVID, so no, I’m not concerned about a false advertisement.”
Axne now makes fighting inflation her top priority. She’s releasing agendas geared towards addressing supply chain bottlenecks, joining working groups in Congress that aim to advance policy solutions to lower inflation, and conceding that rising prices are not so much a blip on the radar as they are a persistent problem that requires multifaceted legislative solutions. “A good leader should always be stepping up and saying, ‘Listen, things have changed. We have got to take another route here.’ That’s why I heavily leaned into getting a supply chain again agenda going, forcing the hand of leadership of being really diligent about getting other members to work with me on having [supply chain] bills come to the floor,” Axne tells TIME. “I’m not going to be one that’s going to just sit there and say, ‘Oh, I bet [wrong], and God forbid I can’t ever change my mind.’”
But with the midterm elections just nine months away, Axne has to hope voters in Iowa’s third district haven’t changed their minds about her. Axne seems particularly vulnerable, as Democrats are gearing up to face an election cycle which pollsters say could endanger their slim majorities in both the House and Senate. The district she represented voted for Donald Trump during the 2020 election. It was previously held by a Republican between 2013 and 2018. Now, the Cook Political Report has rated it as a toss up.
The national inflation rate has risen at an alarming pace since 1982. Polls show that 55% to 67% of respondents to SSRS and CNN polls in January and February indicated that they consider inflation to be a major issue when voting for their representatives. It is. Hit the Midwest hardest given the region’s distance from ocean ports, and among the items most impacted by the price increases is something that constituents in Axne’s district need a lot of: gas. “Most rural and small town folks drive really far for work,” says George Goehl, the outgoing director of People’s Action, a progressive grassroots organizing network. “Even further than they used to, because so much industry has shut down.”
Add in a war between Ukraine and Russia—the latter country supplied roughly 7% of America’s petroleum imports in 2020—and the fuel prices that concerned the constituent in Ankeny are likely to swell further, along with the barriers vulnerable Democrats will face at the ballot box this fall. “[The conflict] is only going to put an exclamation point on an already serious issue,” says Goehl.
Republicans are trying to capitalize on the political vulnerability, decrying Democrats in Congress for what they consider to be reckless spending that they say is fueling inflation, while also touting constituent cost-saving efforts coming out of Iowa’s Republican-led state legislature.
Iowa State Senator Zach Nunn points to a 2018 tax cut package the state legislature passed that slashed Iowans’ state tax bills by an average of $300, and a bill that just passed both state government chambers that will create a single income tax bracket for everybody in the state, decrease the corporate tax rate, and eliminate retirement income taxes. “When Iowans have money, they invest that locally,” says Nunn, a Republican running against Axne. “That’s money that goes directly back into the community, it gets things going. It’s not a giant shotgun blast of federal dollars, that are only going to go to earmark projects that drive up costs, but don’t actually invest in communities.”
Joe Biden’s first year as president signed the $1.9 million COVID-19 relief bill. It passed without GOP support. A bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill, including $550 billion in new funding, was signed into law by Biden. Sensitive Democrats like Axne will be able to present to voters this measure as an option to reduce inflation. “If we had better infrastructure, we’d also be looking at better supply chain issues and less disruption,” Axne says. “Putting the infrastructure bill in place, continuing to support the economy with good paying jobs, those are also going to be things that are helping us as well.”
Axne knows that the American people will not see all the benefits of infrastructure bills funded for five years, but she also believes the November midterms are coming before they do. In the short term, she’s laid out a “Supply Chain Solutions Agenda” urging congressional colleagues to pass bills addressing trucker shortages, port congestion, skilled trades gaps in the manufacturing industry, and more. She’s also joined a working group to advance legislative solutions to inflation through the New Democrat Coalition, which is made up of moderate Democrats.
Axne is also a supporter of the America COMPETES Act that would allocate $52 Billion to the nation. U.S. production of semiconductors, a key element of vehicles and consumer electronics, in addition to tackling other supply chain vulnerabilities stemming from America’s reliance on other countries, including China. The COMPETES Act is the House’s response to the U.S. The Senate passed the Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) last year. The legislation now needs to go through the conference process where lawmakers resolve the two chambers’ versions before it heads to Biden’s desk for signature. Axne expects The process ends here “in the next coming months.”
But Axne and other Democrats racing tough reelection races don’t have much time to change voters’ minds. “Frustration with the Administration and current congressional majorities have already pretty much taken hold,” says Wes Enos, a former member of Bondurant City Council near Des Moines, and a Republican. “Democrats are going to have to figure out some way to back that train up. And as Republicans learned in 2018, backing up the train on people’s perceptions once they’ve become set is extremely hard to do.”
Axne was elected to office in 2018 because of this slow-growing, cemented frustration. She might lose the Iowa seat in 2022 because of this frustration.