In a final week of campaigning for election day, 4th District Congressional candidate JD Scholten “stood tall for all” under an overcast sky Monday evening for one of his final tours of 2020.
While standing tall is not hard to do in the bed of a truck at six-foot-two, the unseasonably freezing weather made it undoubtedly less appealing in the Fort Museum and Frontier Village parking lot, where about 25 cars listened to the Democratic challenger over the radio.
With polling and political forecasts in other districts predicting another “blue wave” in Congress this year, Scholten remains optimistic even after many have written off his campaign in a district where registered Republicans substantially outnumber Democrats.
The candidate said internal polling shows a closer race than the most recent one from Monmouth University, which shows state Sen. Randy Feenstra leading 48% to 43%.
But in the home stretch, the former baseball player told The Messenger that he does share one trait with U.S. Rep. Steve King, the soon to be ex-congressman since Feenstra ousted him in the Republican primary. Scholten believes the race for a district that has eluded Democrats for decades may be less about party affiliation than it is about establishment attitudes rooted in northwestern Iowa.
“If you take all the controversy and racism aside, (King) was anti-establishment,” Scholten said. “We’re anti-establishment, so we’ve picked up a lot of votes. … The history of this district is more anti-establishment than anything else.”
In his 374-town tour — a service mark formerly touted by King before his final victory against Scholten — Scholten said their campaign has met over 700 former King supporters who have voted for him or are about to vote for him this year.
But despite his campaign’s high note of building a grassroots campaign from scratch in a district with dilapidated Democratic outreach infrastructure, Scholten regretted that the campaign still hasn’t managed to shake the stigma that lingered over it two years ago.
“There’s a perception that this race is not winnable,” he said. “The last cycle and this cycle are parallels.”
At this point in the last campaign, his internal polls showed him within 1% of King, spurring a burst of fundraising that helped him finish three points away from King — closer than any Democratic candidate ever got to defeating the incumbent.
The latest internal poll with the Feenstra campaign, cited by the Sioux City Journal on Oct. 15, showed a 23-point lead over Scholten. Scholten’s own internal poll showed him trailing Feenstra by five points.
This time, he said their campaign is much better off, despite the choice to decline Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) funds. As attack ads on the airwaves attempt to disparage other statewide Democratic candidates through ties to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Scholten believes that the move reinforced his campaign’s anti-establishment image in a way that could be a key part to winning voters with a registration disadvantage.
On the last two campaign trails, he’s gone out of his way to distance himself from the party leader being weaponized against Democrats who accept party campaign funding. Scholten told The Messenger that a big part of his run has required that he articulate himself as a candidate — a populist reflection he said does not mirror how the Democratic Party is characterized, particularly as it’s characterized by conservative pundits.
“(The DCCC is) looking for somebody who’s just going to be a puppet for the establishment,” Scholten said from Sioux City Sue, the humble RV that Scholten has called home for the last two campaign cycles. “The fact that I turned down the DCCC, the fact that I want change in leadership, just shows that I’m willing to take on my party if need be.”
Besides, he said, fundraising a campaign dictated from Sioux City wouldn’t have made it possible for him to reach voters in the approach he’s taken. Standing on an F-150 truck bed was his manifestation of retail politics that seemed to warm the small crowd on a cold night, where horn honks were the new applause.
And the applause was plentiful for a small speech that packed a punch by excoriating the status quo maintained by Washington policies he said don’t work in rural Iowa’s favor. Among Scholten’s most popular applause lines were calls to scrap the income cap on Social Security contributions, match the fervor of other global competitors seeking to beat America’s economy and make life in rural America feasible.
As the U.S. Senate confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, cementing a 6-3 conservative majority expected to hear a challenge to the Affordable Care Act after Election Day, Scholten said Congress must work to ensure health care protections for those with preexisting conditions — the number of whom is expected to skyrocket in light of the pandemic.
“We are the wealthiest nation in the world and have far too many people that rely on begging to pay for their medical costs,” he said to the lot after making note of the same gas station collection jars he has talked about since his 2018 bid.
“We’ve got to focus on each other. We gotta focus on people. That’s why I’m sick of these career politicians going to D.C. and leaving the rest of us behind,” Scholten said to the loudest honks of the evening. “When I get elected, I’m not selling out. … At the end of the day, I will come back and look you in the eye on every single issue.”
While D.C. policies continue to favor Wall Street rather than Main Street metrics, Scholten said that “we need working class candidates out there who understand the needs of the district, who show up for the needs of the district and the people.”