Vulnerable Democrats Push for Local Priorities in Budget


After the Senate passed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill last month, Cindy Axne, U.S. Rep. from Iowa, was slow to support it. The price tag wasn’t what tripped up the Democrat representing a swing House constituency. It was the fact that none of this money was intended for the home state industry, ethanol or biodiesel.

Axne was determined to change that. She won assurances from congressional leaders in the weeks that a separate budget blueprint of multitrillion dollars would include funds for renewable fuels. She is now on board.


Her deal on biofuels demonstrates the political strategy that was embedded in the negotiations for massive federal spending.

Although Democrats are attempting to pass ambitious bills that include historic increases in the social safety net, and long-sought programs, it’s not how politically vulnerable Democrats like Axne are selling them. Washington’s recent spending boom has been a chance for them to deliver the goods and possibly win bipartisan support in their respective districts.

“If she wants to get elected next time, this is her political bread and butter,” Ray Gaesser, a Republican farmer in Axne’s district and past candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture, said about her work to secure money for biofuels. “For my part, I appreciate her approach.”

Representative Angie Craig from Minnesota took a similar approach.

Craig’s district, which includes large tracts of farmland south of the Twin Cities is actively promoting her role in securing $2.5 Billion for rural small businesses and farmers to convert to renewable energy sources. This financial incentive will help them meet higher environmental standards.

She tweeted on Friday that she was “thrilled that this long-time priority of mine” would be “supporting family farmers and driving investment across rural America.”

Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger stated that she is primarily focused on a measure that would exempt small-scale farmers from the increase in estate taxes President Joe Biden proposed to pay for the $3.5 trillion bill.

Although Spanberger’s constituents tend to be concentrated in Richmond suburb, the district stretches north-south across the rolling agricultural Piedmont with its many vegetables, cattle, and dairy farms as well as private forestland.

“I’ve been very focused on making sure we’re protecting small family farmers and foresters, certainly across central Virginia,” Spanberger told The Associated Press.

The legislators are trying to help rural America where Democrats have lost votes steadily over the past decade. If they want to retain the House of Representatives seats in 2022, the party will need to reduce its losses in these areas.

The current Democratic majority is just eight seats. Republicans target roughly 30 House seats that Democrats won by less than 10 percentage points. Craig, Spanberger, and Axne won by less than 2 percentage points.

“There’s been a very deliberate effort to think about those provisions in ways that would be beneficial to rural communities,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin who is advising the party on the budget package.

Republicans argue that the size of the spending bill will turn off rural voters in key districts, not attract support.

“Rural voters are incredibly concerned about the reckless spending and massive tax hikes that will be included in Democrats’ reconciliation bill,” said Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If Democrats think these voters’ concerns will be mollified by a few kickbacks from the federal government, they are sorely mistaken.”

The trillion-dollar infrastructure bill — a plan for roads, bridges, public transit and broadband internet — passed the Democratic-controlled Senate with bipartisan support last month. Although the House is expected to pass the bill, its success depends on progress on the $3.5 billion budget bill. This bill includes expanded child tax credits, expanded Medicare coverage and tuition-free community colleges.

Pelosi set the lofty goal to pass it by October 1.

Axne announced on Wednesday that the draft of the House budget bill would include $1 billion to expand retail availability of ethanol and biodiesel around the country. Iowa leads the nation producing ethanol, a corn-based fuel additive, and biodiesel, commonly made from soybeans. The amount is double what Axne sought in a bill she had introduced in the House Agriculture Committee this year.

The grants are expected to increase demand for the fuels nationally, spur output in Iowa’s 42 ethanol plants and biodiesel refineries, as well as boost the price of corn and soybeans for the farmers who supply them, according to Iowa renewable fuels advocates.

“It impacts the price of soybeans by more than a dollar a bushel. That’s a lot of money,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association and a past Republican candidate for Congress. “For ethanol you’re looking at an extra $400 to $500 million for farmers in Iowa, because the price of corn is higher.”

On top of that, for the fraction of the cost of the overall bill, the measure would immediately accelerate cutting carbon emissions, a priority of Biden’s plan, Axne said.

“There’s no way that we’re going to have everybody driving electric vehicles overnight,” Axne said in a recent AP interview. “So why the heck are we not, if our goal is to impact climate in a positive way, blending more biofuels now so we can automatically lower greenhouse gases?”

It’s also a relatively small price for a House seat critical to Democrats’ chances at holding the majority.

Axne holds the distinction of winning by the smallest margin — 1.4 percentage points — of any Democrat in a district carried by Republican Donald Trump last year.

Last year, the former state government administrator and small business owner from suburban Des Moines won Polk County, home to Des Moines and most of its suburbs, but lost the district’s other 15 counties.

Like Spanberger’s advocacy for rural Virginians, Axne’s emphasis on an economic priority in the GOP-leaning geographic majority of her district could trim her losses in rural Iowa next year.

There will be other factors, of course. Biden’s overall approval rating, now down after criticism for the chaotic recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and surging COVID-19 cases, is likely to play a major role. And any number of factors will emerge before an election still almost 17 months away.

Still, Axne’s first-step success is a good sign for her, said Shaw, the Republican renewable fuels advocate.

“I hate to ever say one thing makes or breaks somebody. But there are times when you have a chance to make a difference and that’s where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “Ultimately, we need folks who can deliver.”