Chatting With the Prairie Populist Who Wants to Oust the Biggest Racist in Congress
J.D. Scholten is somewhere in rural northern Iowa, aboard a Winnebago named Sioux City Sue after the Gene Autry song, en route to the second-to-last stop on his third tour of all 39 counties in the state’s 4th congressional district. When he calls Rolling Stone, the connection cuts in and out. “We’re in one- and two-bar country,” he says.
Scholten is a 38-year-old former professional baseball player and fifth-generation Iowan trying to oust the most notorious xenophobe and racist in Congress, Rep. Steve King (R-IA). It’s his first campaign, not just for Congress but anything, and Scholten has taken inspiration from the prairie populist Democrats who once represented this ruby-red swath of Iowa. He name-checks former Senator Tom Harkin and ex-congressman Berkley Bedell, who ran with his slogan “The 1% controls our government. Does the 99% have a chance? Berkley Bedell has some ideas.”
Scholten has plenty of his own ideas. Health care dominates the conversation at his events and town halls, and he supports a public option and eventually Medicare-for-all. He gets into the weeds talking about tariffs, agriculture policy, antitrust reform and putting more money into the pockets of Iowa farmers. Yet in this deep-red district, Scholten says he connects with independent and Republican voters on the issue of the corrupting effect of money in politics.
“I start off every town hall by telling folks this stat: the average person in Congress is 58 years old with a net worth of a million dollars,” Scholten says. “I’m different. I’m 20 years younger, and I’m about a million dollars short of that average.”
Scholten was always a long shot in a part of Iowa that Trump won by a 27-point margin. He almost shut down his campaign early on, he says, after nearly running out of money, but then he won the primary, snagged Sen. Bernie Sanders’ endorsement and has pulled in nearly $1.8 million, outraising King by more than double. On Friday, the district’s largest newspaper, the Sioux City Journal, endorsed him after multiple past endorsements of King. A new poll released Tuesday by Change Research shows him trailing King by a single percentage point. Finally, he says, Democrats and Republicans alike in the 4th district are fed up with King’s ugly antics.
Rolling Stone: At a national level, Steve King is known as basically the biggest xenophobe in Congress. He tweets things like “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He endorses neo-Nazi sympathizers. Yet he keeps getting reelected. Is there a different Steve King than the one that us folks in the bubble see?
J.D. Scholten: There’s a lot of folks here for the longest time who, even if they heard those stories, they usually came from a Democratic opponent, and they were used to saying, “Oh, that’s just Steve being Steve, like that crazy uncle.”
I think with social media, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, people now get to see that on their own. And what we’re seeing is there are people who are saying, “Enough is enough.”
They’re getting the information directly. It doesn’t feel like it’s intermediated by somebody or it’s in an attack ad.
Here’s the thing that we’re seeing that’s different. In the Sioux City Journal — Sioux City is the largest city in the district, and where I’m from — and the Mason City Globe Gazette, they both had headlines [about King endorsing neo-Nazi sympathizer and Toronto mayor candidate Faith Goldy]. The Mason City paper, it’s front page. In the Journal, it was the second page. It flat-out said, “King endorses white nationalist,” which is a headline that has never been in the district before.
You’re now on your third tour of all 39 counties in the 4th district.
I went to all 39 counties in my personal vehicle, putting 35,000 miles on that. And then we bought a Winnebago RV, because they’re made in this district, and I threw my logo on the side, and we went to all 39 counties in that, and now we’re doing our third one — 39 counties, 39 town halls, in 38 days, but that’s just coincidence. I could have slept in my bed one more night, I guess, if you really want to do 39, 39, 39. Tonight is our second-to-last stop.
I modeled it after my two political heroes: Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Berkley Bedell. Harkin is obviously more well known. Berkley Bedell was a populist Democrat in the late Seventies and early Eighties in northwest Iowa, in the ruby-red areas, and he would win with 60 percent [of the vote]. He would hold town halls and ask folks, “How do I vote? How do you want me to vote on this issue?” He just was really out there and engaged with his constituents.
Is it fair to call you a populist?
I use a line from Paul Wellstone [the former progressive senator from Minnesota]: “I’m from the democratic side of the Democratic Party.” I have no problem calling myself a populist, because this is a very working-class district. I chased a dream playing minor league baseball, but I never made a dime in my life. So when it comes to health care, I tell them in my off-seasons of my baseball career, I would find two part-time jobs while trying to train full time, and at a time when I was maximizing my body, I often didn’t have health insurance.
The whole controversial side of Steve King absolutely disgusts me. But there’s also that backside of how ineffective and how out of touch he is with this district. And he’s tweeted about the mayoral race in Toronto as much as he’s tweeted about an issue in the 4th district in the last two months. It’s nuts.
The Democratic Party is increasingly associated with urban areas, the coasts, and especially big cities. How do you break through as Democrat in a rural region nowadays?
Last week I saw this tweet by David Wasserman about a blue wave for Democrats who are within 20 miles of a Whole Foods.
Blue Wave in a nutshell: Democrats are doing really, really well anywhere that’s within like a 20 minute drive from a Whole Foods Market.
— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) October 19, 2018
We don’t have a Whole Foods in this district, but I’m fine. I see so much crossover with what we’re trying to do. There’s Republican voters out there that are saying, “You know what, I’m a Republican, but mental health is a huge deal here in Iowa. Health care is a huge deal here in Iowa. J.D.’s the only one talking about it.”
If you look at the agriculture economy right now, the federal government’s attacking this district in three different ways, whether it’s market consolidation and just squeezing farmers, both on the input side and the output side. What we see is that, of the consumer dollar, less than 15 cents makes it back to the farmer. That’s the lowest of all time, and productions costs are just rising. Senator Grassley (R-IA) talks about this stuff but doesn’t do anything about it. But I’d be willing to work with Grassley, because that’s an Iowa issue, not necessarily a Republican-Democrat [issue]. And then, obviously, the trade war is the third one. We’re borrowing money from China to give to our farmers not to sell their products to China. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.
What are the issues that you hear about the most, or the issues that when you started the campaign you didn’t think you’d be studying up on in the Winnebago between events?
I talk about three issues right away: A healthcare system that works for all. An economy that works for all of us, because we don’t have a workforce. We’re shrinking in population. We’re an aging population. So there’s a lot of issues with that in this 4th District, and I’m trying to modernize it with technology and some other rural revitalization.
And then the third part of it is, we talk a lot about cleaning up Washington. There’s an average of 22 lobbyists per person in Congress. People gasp when I say that. I talk about campaign finance reform and trying to get money out of politics, so we can get a government that’s back to of the people, by the people, for the people — and one that includes the people.
Is money in politics something that has that crossover appeal?
Absolutely. My neighbor is a great guy. He’s probably mowing my lawn, either yesterday or today, while I’m out on the road. He caucused for Mr. Trump, has a truck the size of Texas and has five AR-15s. We don’t necessarily see eye to eye on everything. But any time we go down a rabbit hole, we can always get back out by talking about how frustrated we both are with the special interests that dictate our democracy.
Iowa had more counties that flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016 than any other state. Five of those are in the 4th district. What do you think caused that Obama-Trump flip, and how do you flip those people back to the Democratic Party?
I think both campaigns really ran on hope and change. Trump ran on change and being different, and I think that’s some of the appeal that we have to a lot of these people, too. Because I’m not a traditional candidate. I’m a first-time candidate and people, especially in Sioux City, know me more for baseball than they do as being a Democrat.
People are comforted by that and by our message that says, “Listen, I’m not out there to run and just be a Democrat. I’m out there to fight for the district and work for the people of my district.” But at the same time, I’m not shying away from issues. I’m out there talking to Republican farmers about Medicare-for-all.
One of the issues that I find fascinating about the 4th district is immigration. Rep. King is anti-immigration and anti-reform in every way possible. Yet, as you’ve talked about, immigration is vital to the economy there and many business owners want real reform.
I remember launching this campaign and I was told, “Oh, you should at least try to talk to some consultants about shaping your stances and stuff.” I talked to somebody in D.C. and they said, “Don’t talk about immigration.” I immediately said, “You know what? I’m not dealing with consultants. I’m running my own campaign, and just listening to the people.”
There are two hog plants — one’s about to open and one’s been open for over a year — on two different sides of the district, and both executive directors have talked about a need for an immigrant workforce. And then one of the grain elevators last harvest I went and talked to, and those folks were talking about how they needed 39 people, seasonal workers, to help with their harvest last year. They didn’t get one American citizen to apply. For us to have such an extreme representative that is just so far removed from what this district is on this issue, it’s absolutely insane. It’s so bizarre.
You’re doing these town halls and talking about immigration, that the system is broken, that the economy will thrive if we can fill these workforce needs. Yet Steve King, the incumbent, literally wants to do the opposite of all of that and supports an administration that’s scaring away what workforce is left. How do people respond?
We haven’t had a Democrat willing to get out there and travel as much as we have. You’re not going to win people over by just having a good commercial. The first time we went on the tour, it was mostly Democrats [turning out] at that point, and they said, “Well, somebody should run against King. God bless you.” And then the second time going around, they’re like, “Wow. He’s just not not Steve King. He’s actually standing for something.”
And then the third time around, they see that hope and that change. We started very humbly with this campaign. I’m a first-time candidate, and my first quarter [fundraising] was under $40,000. Now, a year and a half later, we’ve passed $1.8 million. I didn’t hire a campaign manager right away. I didn’t hire a finance director. I hired a comms person, and that’s why we have over 90,000 followers on Twitter because I knew we were running against King. And I knew that if I could have a voice on Twitter, I could reach out to enough folks to draw attention to this race.
That almost backfired when I wasn’t bringing in money and all that stuff. I mean, Thanksgiving last year, if we weren’t bringing in money in the next week, week and a half, I was about to have to collapse the campaign. But we started raising money, and success breeds success. We just haven’t looked back, and here we are with under two weeks left to go, and not only do we have a chance to win, I’m feeling more and more optimistic every day.