On a brisk Monday afternoon in Des Moines, a couple dozen volunteers gathered in Cindy Axne#8217s small Des Moines campaign office to kick off an afternoon canvass. They#8217re mostly older, mostly white, the type of people who have time to spare on a weekday in late October. Axne riled up the crowd by arguing that her opponent, Republican Congressman David Young, tries to pretend that the House GOP supports people with pre-existing conditions. #8220Not true!#8221 the crowd shouted.

Axne, a 53-year old small business owner who has worked for various state agencies, is the Democrat challenging Young in Iowa#8217s 3rd district. She#8217s one of a record number of first-time women candidates running for Congress to help Democrats take back the House in a year when issues surrounding gender and sexual violence have dominated national narratives. But like many female Democratic candidates in competitive or conservative-leaning districts, Axne is ignoring those hot-button debates and staying focused on the issues affecting the voters she#8217s trying to reach. Here in suburban Des Moines, that means she#8217s talking about health care coverage, affordable higher education, and rural jobs.

This approach isn#8217t just a stark contrast to the national conversation among Democratic activists. It#8217s also a different approach than the one female Democratic candidates are taking in more liberal districts. Some of those women candidates have used their own #MeToo experiences to fuel their campaigns. Mary Barzee Flores, who#8217s running for Congress in South Florida, ran an ad last year about dealing with harassment and #8220handsy customers.#8221 Ayana Pressley, who knocked off a 10-term Democratic incumbent in a House primary for her Boston-area district, puts #8220violence and trauma#8221 near the top of her platform on her campaign website, highlighting her own experience as a survivor of sexual violence. In Michigan, gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer has talked repeatedly about her experience as a survivor of sexual assault.

Axne could do the same if she wanted. Roughly 30 years ago, shortly after she graduated from the University of Iowa, she says she fought off a would-be rapist as she walked home from a night out in Chicago.

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#8220I noticed there was a guy behind me, and the next thing I knew I was shoved into an alley, and he was on top of me with a ski mask and a knife,#8221 she recalls in an interview. #8220He said, #8216Don#8217t say anything or I#8217m really going to hurt you.


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