Iowa Republican Steve King is a notorious bigot who has comfortably served in Congress since 2003, but a surprising challenger in the historically Republican district is proving he may have what it takes to unseat King in November.
Former professional baseball player J.D. Scholten is a progressive who is one of four Democrats who have tossed their hats in the ring of Iowa’s 4th District. He witnessed a surge in fundraising at the end of last year, bringing in $174,344 to King’s $87,544 in the fourth quarter. (King has raised the most money overall, with $244,725 to Scholten’s $214,487, but last quarter’s results show the tide may be turning.)
Progressive insurgents have entered congressional races in district after district amid an expected Democratic wave in the midterm elections, and as the primary races heat up, the looming question is whether they can defeat their more centrist opponents, who have the backing of the Democratic Party. (As The Intercept reported last week, a handful of progressives are out-raising their establishment opponents.) In Iowa, each of the Democrats is a first-time candidate, and the more central question is whether a district that has belonged to Republicans for decades can possibly turn from red to blue.
“We’re grateful for the amount of support this campaign has received,” Scholten said. “At first, our focus was to get out on the road to engage with as many people as possible. At the time, people liked us simply because I wasn’t Steve King. Now we’re seeing the shift to people responding to our message of inclusiveness.”
Scholten’s platform includes backing a $15 minimum wage, moving toward a single-payer health care system, and comprehensive immigration reform. He’s landed the support of Krystal Ball, founder of the People’s House Project, a group that supports progressive candidates. (The People’s House Project has not officially endorsed Scholten.)
Scholten was born in Iowa, but he was living in Seattle last year when Trump was elected president. He said he was inspired by the Seattle Women’s March to get more involved in the political process. “I just got so moved by the passion and raw energy that happened — I had a moment of clarity,” he said. Around the same time, his grandmother died in Iowa. After attending the funeral, he felt compelled to move home and get involved.
His immigration platform is diametrically opposite to where King stands on the issue. King has demanded surveillance of American mosques and cozied up to extreme nativist politicians like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Just two months ago, he condemned the concept of diversity altogether, adding to his long history of demonizing immigrants and promoting a homogenous culture.
In an interview with The Intercept, Scholten portrayed King’s views on immigration as not just out of touch with the northwestern Iowa district’s values, but also in conflict with its economic needs.
“In this district, we have so many rural communities that are just using immigrant labor as a backbone for their economy,” he said, “and to have him just spout these things it’s just, obviously on the moral side I’m against it, but on the just practical side, it goes drastically against the district.”
King defeated his Democratic opponent by 22.6 percentage points in 2016, a fact that is not lost on Scholten. Still, the former baseball player is encouraged by Democratic performance in Iowa’s special elections over the last year. “We’ve had five special elections at the state level since the presidential election, and the average of all of those are plus 29 toward Democrats,” he said.
Scholten’s strategy for taking back the district is to lean hard into pocketbook issues.
“Is there going to be a wave? Probably. But we’re not counting on it. I’m not out there being complacent and just expecting things to happen. I’m out there going into some of the typical areas that Democrats don’t get out to,” he said. “A huge problem of Democrats here is that there’s not a Midwest Democrat … who has kind of shown that we’re a different type of Democrat. [We want to] focus on the working class and at the end of the day, letting them know that I’m fighting for their job, I’m fighting for their paycheck and retirement, I’m fighting for their health care, and I’m fighting for their kids’ education.”
It’s not clear, though, that fundraising alone will be enough to flip the district. Timothy Hagle, who studies Iowa politics at the University of Iowa, told The Intercept he expects the 4th District seat to stay in King’s hands due to the huge Republican voter advantage.
“I’m not convinced yet that 2018 will be a wave year for Democrats, but even if it is it will be very unlikely that King’s re-election would be in question. King represents Iowa’s fourth Congressional District, this district has the largest voter registration advantage for Republicans. As of the beginning of this month, Republican voters outnumbered Democrats in IA04 by nearly 73 thousand,” he wrote in an email. “As much as some people, Democrats but some Republicans too, don’t like King, there would need to be a major problem of some sort involving him or an extremely strong primary challenger before his reelection is in danger.”
King’s primary opponent is Cyndi Hanson, a political newbie who has worked in education administration and as a college professor.
“The primary reason I decided to join the primary is because I’m tired of the gridlock in Washington and the divisiveness. Those are the two primary things,” Hanson told The Intercept. “Not getting things done and really focusing on rhetoric is frustrating to me.”
Hanson, a longtime resident of Sioux City, Iowa, is fighting an uphill battle. She announced her bid in early December and had raised just about $6,000 by the end of the month, trailing far behind every other candidate. In the primary race, King also has the advantage of support from the local Republican Party and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent $600,000 on him 2012, his last tough re-election fight. That year, he won re-election by 8 points. In 2016, King faced a primary challenge from state Sen. Rick Bertrand. To counter Bertrand, King scooped up endorsements from several of Bertrand’s colleagues in the state legislature, including Speaker of the House Linda Upmeyer.
Still, Hanson is determined to wage a campaign that focuses on the values of the old Republican Party — the one that promoted an extension of the Refugee Act in its 1956 platform, for example, and appealed to Muslim-American voters in the era before the war on terror.
“My view is very much appreciative of the variety of folks that we have in this country and in this particular district,” Hanson said, referring to people’s ideological and political differences. “I am not in favor of constructing a wall, or being entirely defensive in our approach to immigration. I think there is a role for protecting our security in the nation, and that’s definitely a rule we need to make sure we’re doing background checks and things like that.”
She is setting herself apart from King in her stance on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program known as DACA that offered protections to unauthorized immigrants whose parents illegally brought them to the United States as children. When President Donald Trump cancelled DACA in September and kicked the can to Congress to resolve the issue, King said DACA recipients should “live in the shadows.” Like many other congressional Republicans, he does not believe Congress has a duty to create legislative protections for any class of unauthorized immigrants.
Hanson disagrees. “I do support legislative action on [DACA],” she said. “I think we have to have an answer for folks who are in limbo. I have talked with and I know a number of people who fall under DACA protection right now, and when you look at the requirements to be under that deferred action, these are some of our best and brightest.”
Her stance on immigration may be more in line with Republicans in the district than King’s; a Politico poll from September found that 68 percent of self-identified Trump voters think DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, should be allowed to stay in the United States. Last month, Trump presented a plan to Congress that would create a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million unauthorized immigrants, in exchange for $25 billion for the border wall and heavy restrictions on family migration. (The president has been accused of using Dreamers as a bargaining chip to get funding for the border wall, a campaign proposal that had loud resonance with his base.)
Sioux County, which is represented in the state’s 4th District and votes overwhelmingly for Republicans, is a so-called sanctuary county, another indication that King’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is not necessarily reflective of attitudes in the district. The county has had a non-detainer policy since 2014, meaning it does not detain immigrants at the behest of federal immigration authorities without probable cause.
When Congress was debating the massive rewrite of the tax bill back in December, Hanson told The Intercept she was concerned that the proposal would boost deficits. Her outlook on health care is also starkly different from that of many in the GOP, who spent months last year trying to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. “There is some kind of a role for the government to play in making health care accessible,” she said, adding that she does not support a full repeal of the law.
Polling has generally shown that GOP voters are more favorable to repealing the law than other groups of Americans, but they are far from united over the congressional Republicans’ proposal to make that happen. A Quinnipiac poll showed that 48 percent backed the Republican alternative that made its way through Congress in May, shy of a majority.
“I think one of [the GOP’s mistakes] was trying to push something through on a straight partisan vote,” Hanson said about the party’s failure to pass health care reform last year. “That’s how we got the [ACA]. [It] was a pure partisan vote, and I think anytime that’s happened, we’ve left a lot of people and important opinions out of the mix.”
Iowa voters will head to the polls on June 5 to vote in the Democratic and Republican primary elections.