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How Record-Setting Inflation Could Affect Democrats in the Midterms

6 minute read

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 of the costs against 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.”

Now Axne has made combatting inflation a 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. As Democrats in both congressional chambers gear up for an election cycle pollsters predict may cost the party their narrow majorities, Axne appears particularly vulnerable. Her district voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, it was held by a Republican from 2013 and 2018, and it is now rated by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report as a toss-up.

Inflation, which has increased nationally at its fastest clip since 1982, is polling as an important issue to voters: 55% of voters polled by CNN and SSRS in January and February said inflation will be extremely important to their congressional vote this year. It has hit the Midwest the 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.”

During the first year of his presidency, Joe Biden signed a $1.9 million COVID-19 relief package that passed without any GOP support in Congress. He also signed into law a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill (including $550 billion of new funding) that vulnerable Democrats like Axne are hoping they can pitch to voters as a measure that will ease some of the issues related to 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.”

But Axne also knows the November midterms will arrive before many Americans will see the total benefits of the infrastructure bill, which is funded over five years. 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 also supports the America COMPETES Act, which would invest $52 billion into the 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. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which passed last year in the Senate. 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 anticipates that process will wrap up “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.”

That sort of cemented, slow-growing frustration helped get Axne elected in 2018. It might also be what costs her the Iowa seat in 2022.

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com