SIOUX CITY, IOWA — Iowa’s 4th District is not exactly what you’d call ideal territory for a first-time Democratic congressional candidate.
During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump trounced Hillary Clinton throughout the district. For the past 16 years, it has been represented in Washington by far-right, anti-immigrant Republican Congressman Steve King.
The strength of that conservative support is on full display at a diner in the town of Cherokee, where Fox News blares in the background and a sign reading “I stand for the flag and kneel for Jesus” hangs on the wall as decoration.
In a few hours, King’s Democratic challenger, J.D. Scholten, will hold a town hall. A paltry 12 people have said they will attend on the event’s Facebook page. But at the event at least three dozen people are present, a pleasant surprise to Scholten’s campaign.
A few hours later, at a second town hall in Spirit Lake, more than 180 people show up, ready to give their support to former professional baseball player Scholten. Harold Prior, chairman of the Dickinson County Democrats, proudly says it’s their biggest town hall turn-out yet.
In Washington D.C., Steve King has garnered an infamous reputation for parroting racist and white supremacist talking points. He’s re-tweeted British neo-Nazis, garnered praise from the Daily Stormer, mocked Parkland activist Emma Gonzalez’s Cuban heritage, made frequent trips to Austria’s far-right government, and infamously said in 2017 that “we can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies,” comments on which he later doubled-down.
But King’s racist rhetoric isn’t what Scholten is talking to voters about. Instead, he’s maintaining a laser-like focus on the issues and accusing King of forgetting who his constituents are — a talking point at both town halls.
Scholten hits King specifically over his failure to author any legislation — the only bill King has authored since taking office 16 years ago was to rename a post office which isn’t even in his district anymore — and takes aim at King’s stances on inequality, healthcare, and agriculture.
“I get very frustrated with King when it comes to agriculture,” Scholten says at a town hall in Dickinson. “In the 16 years [King’s] been the incumbent, he’s had the opportunity to be chairmen of agriculture committee, but he’s not even on the farm bill committee, he’s abdicated his leadership.”
Scholten says he wants to fight to reduce corporate consolidation of the agriculture business, give communities local control over protecting their air and water quality from large-scale hog farms and stop Trump’s trade war, which Scholten says amounts to “borrowing money from China to give to our farmers to not sell their products to the Chinese.”
“The folks who come out to these events are the more engaged voters, and I don’t need to tell them what they already know [about Steve King],” Scholten tells ThinkProgress later that evening. “I want to make sure they go away knowing what my values are and show the contrasting not only values but styles.”
Scholten’s regional focus and refusal to get dragged into a name-calling contest with King has been received positively by community members, who say they’re as tired of King’s inaction and refusal to address the needs of his constituents as they are with his racist commentary.
“I think everyone’s a bit tired of King’s hate and rhetoric, and actually even his record. He hasn’t done much for this county,” Anita Sorensen, a legal assistant from Sioux County, tells ThinkProgress. “He’s been there too long, we need a change and J.D. brings that. He’s sincere and wants to work for the county instead of showing up on the news and inflating his own ego.”
“All Steve King does is exist to offend as many people as possible,” says John Adams, former chair of the Dickinson county GOP. “I have an African-American granddaughter and she would not fit his mold at all, and that’s another reason I’m really into J.D. King’s been in office for 16 years and he’s authored one bill, so what does that tell you?”
Adams says he’s voted for every GOP candidate from Goldwater to Romney. He adds, however, that the Republican party’s refusal to stand up to President Trump, coupled with his experience attending the March for Our Lives rally in Washington with his granddaughter, led him to switch over to the Democrats.
“The biggest thing in Iowa for me is Medicare,” he says. “[More specifically], the fact that Republicans have privatized Medicare in Iowa and it’s been a wreck. I know people on Medicaid who now can’t get their batteries for their electric scooters.”
The enthusiasm for Scholten, and voters’ frustrations with King, appear to be paying off in the polls: in early September, Scholten was 10 points behind King, but that deficit has since shrunk to six points. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nationally-recognized politically handicapper, has moved King’s district from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican.”
King is still favored to win, but bearing in mind he’s won his previous seven re-elections by an average of 23 points, the race is fast becoming a bit too close for King’s comfort.
Not everything is rose-tinted for the Scholten campaign. They lack support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), an organization with which J.D. admits he has “a lot of issues.” And while the poll that showed Scholten only six points behind King was welcomed by the campaign, it also noted he was still suffering from low name recognition, which could factor into voters’ decisions come Election Day.
As a Democrat in a historically deep-red district, Scholten faces the unenviable task of translating the excitement generated by more outwardly progressive candidates into a formula more marketable to Iowans. But if he manages to do do it, he could score a crucial victory that would undoubtedly send shock waves through the Republican Party.
“In order to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people, you need to include the people,” he said at a recent campaign stop in Storm Lake, Iowa. “…My commitment is to this district. I’m trying to show that through this campaign.”
He added, confidently, “This race is absolutely winnable.”