After narrowly losing his 2018 race against Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Democrat J.D. Scholten is making another attempt. And this time, he could pull it off.
Scholten, a former baseball player and paralegal, announced he would run against King again in 2020 with a video launched on Monday. King has held his seat in Iowa’s deeply conservative Fourth Congressional District for more than 15 years, despite retweeting neo-Nazis and making racist and xenophobic comments. The neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer embraced King as one of their own in 2017, saying he was “basically a white nationalist at this point.”
Scholten didn’t mention King in his new announcement video, which focused on Iowa’s families and farms.
But 2018 showed that King and Iowa Republicans more broadly are in a substantially weaker spot than they have been in years. Scholten wasn’t exactly running as a conservative Democrat; the Bernie Sanders–affiliated group Our Revolution endorsed him last year. Even so, he came within spitting distance of beating King, who clung to his seat by about 2,500 votes, a razor-thin margin.
King’s troubles have been building since the election. As soon as he got to Capitol Hill for the new term, there was an uproar over comments he made to the New York Times: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King claimed the Times had misquoted him, but he didn’t escape punishment from House leaders. House Republicans voted to strip King of his committee assignments.
The flap also earned King a Republican primary challenger, Randy Feenstra, the assistant majority leader of the Iowa state Senate. Feenstra is out-fundraising King so far; as OpenSecrets noted, he raised $260,000 during the first three months of 2019, compared to a dismal $62,000 raised by King’s campaign.
Scholten is now trying to show that a Democrat can win even in Iowa’s most conservative district. If he’s successful and other Democrats hold their seats, Iowa’s congressional delegation for the US House would be entirely composed of Democrats — a surprising development for a conservative-leaning Midwestern state.
Who is J.D. Scholten, and does he have a shot?
Scholten was a first-time candidate in 2018 who made King’s district actually competitive. King hadn’t had a real challenger in more than a decade, and he spent much of the 2018 midterms acting like he had no challenger. Meanwhile, Scholten was fundraising boatloads of cash; he raised more than $1.4 million, bombarded Iowa voters with ads, and planned to campaign in every county in the district.
Like many others who ran in 2018, Scholten was a first-time candidate who was jolted into politics by Donald Trump’s 2016 election. The xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiments espoused by the president mirror things King has been saying for years.
“When you’re a young(er) Midwesterner who admires Paul Wellstone and Tom Harkin, there’s not a greater political fight than defeating Steve King,” Scholten told Vox’s Jane Coaston in a March email interview. “His controversial statements are an embarrassment, and his ineffectiveness and votes to the detriment of the district are what fuel my passion in this pursuit.”
To be sure, Scholten will still face an uphill battle whether he’s competing against King or Feenstra. In such a conservative district, Scholten can’t win on Democratic votes alone, and he’s hoping to win over moderate Republicans and independents. He’s walking a fine line, supporting progressive policies like Medicare-for-all (in 2018, Scholten said he supports a public option first but wants to work toward Medicare-for-all eventually) as well as the Second Amendment.
King is explicitly anti-abortion, and while Scholten supports a right to choose, he is Catholic and supports expanding access to contraception, family planning, and adoption to reduce abortion rates.
“This is the best chance we’ve ever had to beat Steve King,” Scholten told Coaston. “People have finally grown tired of his divisiveness. A lot of moderate Republicans have told me they’re supporting me because they’re tired of him embarrassing them and giving their party a bad name. His rhetoric has grown stale at a time where people are paying attention more than ever.”
Even though they ultimately didn’t win King’s district in 2018, Iowa Democrats still had a good year. Democratic House candidates Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer defeated Republican incumbents in Iowa’s Third and First Congressional Districts, respectively.
And the thin margin in King’s district made Democrats eager to try again. 2020 may be their best chance to flip the district, but there are still a lot of unknowns.