How a Progressive Populist Plans to Win a Rural Republican District

Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

Scholten’s track record in the district, and his message of taking on corporate power, could give him a fighting chance.

J.D. Scholten is starting up the Winnebago again.

Last year, Scholten, a first-time candidate who played minor-league baseball before returning to Iowa’s ruby-red Fourth Congressional District, where he was born and raised, came within 10,430 votes of defeating white nationalist Steve King. Scholten, who traversed the sprawling district in an old RV nicknamed “Sioux City Sue” and visited each of the district’s 39 counties at least three times, broke through by arguing that King’s penchant for racism and controversy was totally disconnected from the issues his constituents care about most: health care, the farm economy, and corporate consolidation.

Now he’s back for a rematch, announcing his candidacy with a moody, evocative video voiced by Kevin Costner. “There’s a sense of unfinished business,” Scholten told me in an interview a few hours after he released the video. “Politics is a zero-sum game, but we are in this middle ground, where we did really well but didn’t quite win. We just ran out of time.”

With higher name recognition and a proven method to raise millions of dollars, Scholten is leading with the same message he delivered in 2018: Rural Iowans are being hammered by corporate greed and government neglect, and need someone to stand up for them. He represents a new breed of populists who target their ire at the real forces impoverishing rural communities—not immigrants or liberal values, but seed and livestock giants, factory farms, and concentrated banking interests.

“At the root of my running is what my grandmother said to me on her deathbed: ‘Come home and take care of the farm,’” Scholten says. “This is the second-largest agriculture district in the country, their backs are against the wall, and they’re not being represented right now. That gets me fired up.”

Scholten begins his 2020 rematch with lots of pre-existing support. Democracy for America and Representative Ro Khanna both announced endorsements within a day of his announcement. Khanna called Scholten “the future of rural America” in a message to supporters, adding that “working folks in Iowa and across the heartland deserve someone who will fight for them—not big corporations, and not xenophobes.”

In 2018, Scholten took on an eight-term conservative who had rarely been seriously tested. This time, he’s facing a governmental nonentity. After musing to The New York Times in January, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” King was stripped of all of his committee assignments by House Republican leaders. Life in the minority in the House already affords little power; the committee-less King now has no voice at all in policymaking matters. Says Scholten: “A good question to be asked is what does he actually do?”

King is also facing three Republican primary challengers: former Iowa House member Jeremy Taylor, veteran Bret Richards, and state Senator Randy Feenstra, who at one point appeared poised to consolidate establishment support. But while Feenstra has consistently outraised King this year, he hasn’t been burning up the fundraising trail, with a paltry $140,000 haul in the second quarter. The sense is that Feenstra isn’t the savior candidate the GOP establishment thought. And three challengers are in a way better for King than one: If they all take a share of the anti-King vote, he could prevail with far less than 50 percent of the vote.

Even if King loses the primary, Scholten’s track record in the district, and his message of taking on corporate power, could give him a fighting chance.

Scholten’s near-miss in the toughest district in Iowa sparked talk of him taking on Joni Ernst in a key U.S. Senate race Democrats need to take over the chamber. If any statewide candidate got the vote totals that Scholten was able to obtain in the Fourth District, they would win in a landslide. But ultimately, Scholten felt the pull of home. “My dad’s from the northwest corner, my mom’s from the northeast corner,” he says. “I was born in Ames and grew up in Sioux City, both ends of the district. I would have a difficult time watching King get re-elected in a cakewalk while trying to do something else.”

Why was Scholten able to have enough success in a red district that he feels he can go back and win it this time? I spent a few days with him in October 2018, and what set him apart was his relentless focus on the needs of the district’s residents. Driving himself around in Sioux City Sue and sleeping in Walmart parking lots, Scholten showed up where few Democratic politicians tread during election season. Just presenting himself as an antidote to the crazed liberal caricature portrayed on Fox News won Scholten a chance in these towns.

Talk of trade wars was raging even then, and this week’s announcement by China that it would suspend all agricultural purchases only deepens the cut to farmers’ incomes. But Scholten, whose one grandfather sold seeds while the other farmed a family plot in Lake Mills, understands that farmer woes long predate Trump. He leads with statistics noting that the average Iowa farmer is over 58 years old, and the average owner is a 72-year-old widow. Mergers among livestock producers and seed giants have raised costs and narrowed options for family farmers, while concentrated animal feeding operations have the scale to muscle them out. Even farm credit companies have merged, narrowing choices for the financing that every farmer needs.

These are issues that King never talks about, if he campaigns at all. “After the election, agricultural groups came to me and said, ‘We know where you’re at and we’ll get behind you,’” Scholten says. “I’m excited to create a movement with the farmers’ backing. Last time I earned their trust, but this time I want to earn their vote.”

Scholten also highlights the strains facing middle-class families in Iowa and across the country. He supports Medicare for All, though he thinks it may take a few steps to get there. He notes that every time he stops for gas at a Casey’s General Store, an Iowa fixture known for its coffee, donuts, and pizza, “there are donation boxes for someone raising money because they’re sick. We can’t even take care of our people,” he says.

This is not the standard poll-tested, squishy moderate campaign favored in red districts by the party establishment. Scholten talks about an economy that works for everyone, about cleaning out special interests in Washington, about a tax bill aimed at the one percent. His political heroes are former Senator Tom Harkin and former Representative Berkley Bedell, Iowa Democrats and prairie populists who won conservative areas across the state. I asked whether the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had been in touch. “I told them I’m going to run the way I want, and if they’re on board so be it,” Scholten replied. “If I ran a DCCC style of campaign we’d lose by 20 points.”

Taking on an almost cartoonish villain, someone burned into the minds of every national Democrat, enables Scholten to tap into a national fundraising network. The timing of his launch, coming right after the massacre of Hispanics by a white supremacist in El Paso, isn’t lost on Scholten either. “I get asked so much about King’s white nationalism,” he says. “His voice should not be that of a member of Congress.”

But Scholten’s campaign is intensely local. In a midterm election, he won 25,000 more votes in Iowa’s Fourth District than there are registered Democrats. This year, he believes there’s more room to run. “The conservative vote showed up [last year] at almost presidential levels,” Scholten says. By contrast, only about 35,000 out of 80,000 registered voters came out in Woodbury County, home of Sioux City, where turnout usually spikes in a presidential year. Scholten took Woodbury by nearly nine points.

“What I hope at the end of this campaign, if you talk to ten people in the district, that seven will say they met me, or saw my RV, or went to an event,” says Scholten. It’s an ambitious schedule, but Sioux City Sue is ready. And the man and his Winnebago could point a path for Democrats to gain a foothold in rural America, by speaking directly to people’s challenges and calling out those responsible.

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