SPENCER, Iowa — “The step’s broken, so watch yourself on the way up,” says J.D. Scholten, as he hops into the Winnebago that’s been his mode of transportation and overnight hotel for the past few months. I’m not as rangy as Scholten, a 6-foot-6 former minor league pitcher, but I manage to tumble into the vehicle, nicknamed “Sioux City Sue.” Scholten is behind the wheel for the 45-minute trip to Estherville, which winds through Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, long the domain of white nationalist Rep. Steve King.
We lope across tiny roads framed by corn and soybean fields, and when a semi comes in the other direction, it seems like we’ll have no choice but to veer into the stalks. Somehow the road supports both wide-bodies, and we rumble on.
Prior to “Sioux City Sue,” which was manufactured in the district and is powered by Iowa-made corn ethanol, Scholten says he “had never been in a Winnie before.” But by early October, he’s logged 45,000 miles in it, sleeping most nights in Walmart parking lots, on a bed tucked above the driver’s seat.
Scholten, 38, is on his third tour of the 4th District, a sprawling expanse of northern Iowa that covers 39 counties and around two-fifths of the state’s landmass. His vision for upsetting King, an eight-term congressman in a bright-red district, mostly involves relentless engagement. He’s held multiple town halls and impromptu meet-ups in every county, turning out unusually large crowds, at least for a Democratic political event, in overwhelmingly Republican areas.
National leaders are finally taking notice. Sen. Cory Booker held an event with Scholten on farm issues on Monday, and Sen. Bernie Sanders will spend a weekend on the trail with him soon. Sanders’s fellow Vermonter Ben Cohen just named a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor after the candidate, though it was an odd choice for a pitcher: “Joltin’ Scholten’s Grand Slam Home Run.”
National Democrats have mostly focused on suburban, well-educated districts that have grown disenchanted with Donald Trump’s GOP. But flippable voters also exist in farm country — including in Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — which Democrats have ignored for decades. In fact, rural America presents unique opportunities for populists. Rampant consolidation of seed and livestock producers threatened independent farmers even before Trump led the country into dubious trade wars. As good jobs and entrepreneurs scatter to the coasts, rural Iowa has been left a depopulated shell. Scholten focuses on this issue, and it’s turned heads among restless independents and Republicans.
“I think he has a puncher’s chance,” said Doug Burns of the Carroll Daily Times Herald, a small newspaper in the district. “Howard Dean had his 50-state strategy and it worked. Scholten has a 39-county strategy.”
Scholten is a native son, born in Ames and raised in Sioux City. His family has agricultural roots — one grandfather sold seeds, and the other farmed a plot near Lake Mills that remains in the family. But as the son of a baseball coach, sports became J.D.’s early passion.
He pitched in the College World Series at the University of Nebraska and then bumped around independent leagues in seven countries, from his hometown Sioux City Explorers to teams in Germany, Belgium, and France. On a barnstorming tour in Cuba, he gave up a ground single to Yasmany Tomas, who would later star for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“I loved the strategy side of baseball,” Scholten said. “I’m new to a lot of things when it comes to politics, but strategically I think I have an advantage.” Plus, the grind of the minor leagues prepared him well for life in a Winnebago.
After baseball, Scholten worked as a paralegal in Minneapolis and Seattle. He tells a story at town halls about spending the aftermath of the 2016 election at the retirement home of his Grandma Fern, who urged him to come back to Iowa. She died a month later, and Scholten made up his mind to heed her call. But he couldn’t find any job in the local paper that paid more than $15 an hour with no benefits. “I had my 20th high school reunion, and the kids I grew up with were all doing amazing things but not doing them here,” he said. “I want to work on creating a new rural economy.”
With two opponents in the June primary, the neophyte politician had to devise a game plan. He looked to his two political heroes: retired Sen. Tom Harkin, and Berkley Bedell, a Class of ’74 House member who represented northwest Iowa for six terms until 1986. He was the last Democrat to hold a seat in this region. “Berkley Bedell would win Sioux County, which since then has never voted for a Democrat for president with more than 22 percent,” Scholten said. Bedell, now 97, offered to campaign with Scholten in the district before his medical minders thought better of it.
Bedell was a populist who asked “Does the 1% now own your government?” in campaign flyers decades before Sanders. But the key to Bedell’s success was consistent engagement in small towns. He would have constituents vote at town halls on what issues he should take up in Congress. It was true representative democracy, and it appealed to Scholten as a model. “When you show up and have these conversations, you let people know you’re not that caricature that the other side will portray you as,” he said.
Scholten decided to get in his car and reach as many voters as possible through extreme retail campaigning. Later, the campaign made a deal for “Sioux City Sue,” so named after the Gene Autry song. They painted his logo on the Winnebago and used it as a mobile billboard. If Scholten had no town hall scheduled, he would drive slowly through the main drag and announce on a megaphone attached to the roof that he’d meet up with anyone at the local Casey’s General Store, an Iowa chain known for its coffee, donuts, and pizza.
It paid off with 51 percent of the vote in the primary. “Democrats have to get back to that model of showing up and listening and letting people know you care,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, the first member of Congress to endorse Scholten. “Most people vote for someone because they feel they can trust them.”
The town hall tour has picked up earned media district-wide, and Scholten advertises the events through local outlets as well. With dozens of rural newspapers and radio stations across Iowa, getting coverage can really boost name recognition. Scholten considers local news to be some of the last trusted sources remaining; his ad strategy includes print, TV, but also radio, which farmers listen to in the fields. (He added that The Intercept was the first national publication to take his campaign seriously.)
“He’s using rural newspapers in a way I haven’t seen from a congressional candidate in my career,” said the Carroll Daily Times Herald’s Doug Burns. “The only person who did anything similar is Senator Sanders; he was highly visible in local papers.” Sanders battled to a tie in the 2016 Iowa caucuses.
“We’re running the ‘Moneyball’ version of a campaign,” Scholten said, referring to the Michael Lewis book about how the Oakland A’s strategized to maximize their talent despite being outgunned by big-market rivals with deep pockets to sign players. Using the Winnebago as an advertisement is one example. So is seeking out local residents as field organizers who understand how to move votes in their towns.
Scholten has also focused on yard signs. In small towns where everyone knows one another — the “farmer’s wave,” which consists of raising an index finger off the steering wheel as a car passes, separates locals from outsiders — a yard sign in front of the house can act as an invitation from a neighbor that it’s OK to support a Democrat. “It’s like old-fashioned social media,” said Rob Sand, the Democratic candidate for Iowa state auditor. Scholten claims that his campaign is running even with King on yard signs in the rural areas, and if you add in Sioux City and Ames, two more relatively liberal cities, they’re crushing him. This bore out on my travels across the district; I didn’t see a single King sign.
Unlike the A’s against the Yankees, Scholten has more money than King. While his $776,000 in receipts through June ranks lower than the million-dollar fundraisers among 2018 Democratic House candidates, it’s over $250,000 more than King. And unlike King, Scholten doesn’t take corporate PAC money. Among individual donors, Scholten’s outraised King 2 to 1, and he expects to double his total haul to $1.5 million by the end of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Scholten’s crowds have grown larger. There were 65 in Sheldon, O’Brien County (population 14,398, Trump won in 2016 by 77-18); 35 on a weekday in Ida Grove, Ida County (population 7,089, Trump 74-22); and a whopping 182 in Bedell’s birthplace, Spirit Lake, Dickinson County (population 16,667, Trump 65-30). The event with Senator Booker, in Boone, brought in an estimated 150.
Dickinson County Democratic chair Harold Prior highlighted a moment at the Spirit Lake town hall that sums up Scholten’s approach. A Republican constituent active in local politics asked about immigration, and after Scholten answered, kept pressing with follow-ups. He referenced Mollie Tibbetts, the University of Iowa student killed by an undocumented farm worker. Some in the crowd started grumbling about the soliloquy, but Scholten hushed them.
“He said, ‘Wait a minute, I invited everyone here to hear their concerns, and we’re going to respect that,’” Prior recalled. “It was a terrific moment for J.D., exactly what we want our representatives to do. Even if you don’t agree with someone, they have a right to make their opinions known.”
Spencer, Iowa, the seat of Clay County, has a three-block-long business district, which in this part of the state makes it almost a metropolis. But there were moments as I walked through downtown on a rainy Thursday afternoon when I was the only one on the street, with almost nobody in the stores.
In the one-story county administration building, Scholten addressed a crowd of about 30, leaning into many progressive positions Democratic candidates are employing across the country. He supports “Medicare for All,” but thinks that as a bridge to getting there, Congress should enact a public option and a Medicare buy-in at age 55. He endorses raising the minimum wage and expanding Social Security. He talks about the epidemics of high drug prices and medical bankruptcies, about donation buckets seen at every gas station in Iowa, asking for money to help someone with their doctor bills. He highlights fighting special interests and reforming campaign finance, and checks Democratic boxes on preventing climate change, building infrastructure, and improving mental health services.
But Scholten leads with something more novel — a detailed critique of the farm economy. It doesn’t hinge on the Trump tariffs that are typically all you hear about from Democratic candidates. “We’ve had four consecutive years of low commodity prices,” Scholten told me in the Winnebago on the way from Spencer to another town hall in Estherville. “The average owner of a farm is a 72-year-old woman, and the average operator is over 58 years old. When kids are moving off the farm because it’s harder to farm, what’s going to happen?”
Scholten’s top issue in agriculture is corporate consolidation that has threatened the existence of any farm that’s not industrial in scale. A few companies own most major livestock producers, and Monsanto’s merger with Bayer capped off a run that saw the top seed producers shrink to just three, a circumstance that has tripled seed prices over the last 20 years. Concentrated animal feeding operations and factory farms dot the Iowa landscape. “Any time you take the market option away, you add pressure and costs on farmers,” Scholten said.
Even farm credit companies have merged, narrowing choices for financing that every farmer needs. Community bank closures have severed generations-long personal relationships between farmers and local bankers, reducing access to loans. And big banks, mindful of their bottom line more than the struggles of their neighbors, are less likely to cut farmers slack for having a bad year in the fields. So one bad year — and there is always one bad year — can mean the farm has to be sold, perpetuating the cycle of consolidation.
On our drive, Scholten pointed out fields that used to be filled with seed corn, to generate crops for the following year. That practice has become illegal, as companies like Monsanto sell seeds but retain the ownership, forcing farmers to re-purchase every year. “It’s like buying a Chevy pickup,” said Chris Peterson, a hog farmer in Clear Lake, Iowa, “but Chevy still owns it. If you want to change a tire, you have to ask them. You don’t own the pickup even though you paid for it.”
This has made traditional farming virtually obsolete, and put many into penury. Half of all Iowa farmland is rented out by landlords. Over 70 percent of chicken farmers live below the poverty line. Farmers and ranchers make less than 15 cents out of every dollar consumers spend on food, an all-time low. Farmer suicides have risen to record highs, more than double that of veterans.
Many who can’t survive leave; Iowa’s 4th is so massive because its borders had to be stretched to find enough people to make a full congressional district, as a struggling farm economy can no longer support all the ancillary businesses that cater to farmers. Food quality suffers with monoculture crops bred for yield instead of quality, and fragility in the system increases; a blight on one of the handful of seeds used a year can wipe out millions of acres.
While ethanol mandates have propped up some farms, Environmental Protection Agency waivers exempting blending for well-connected refineries have dipped prices by up to 40 cents a bushel and left two ethanol plants in the district temporarily shuttered. On Tuesday, Trump visited Council Bluffs and announced the launch of a process to make E15 ethanol available year-round, an obvious political play for a state where Republicans are lagging in midterm polls. But for many farmers, this comes years too late.
Though trade disruptions have certainly hurt, it’s these issues that animate Iowa farmers, and Scholten has put their struggle front and center. He’s endorsed Booker’s bill to put a moratorium on agriculture and food mergers. “Addressing antitrust abuses and restoring free enterprise to our ag sector is an Iowa issue, not a partisan issue,” he wrote in a letter to the Des Moines Register. He pitches advanced farming technology to kickstart rural economic growth, and a program in Cherokee County that pays community college tuition for students willing to work locally for three years after graduation, to prevent brain drain.
By contrast, despite having the fourth-most farm operators and second-most agricultural products sold of any congressional district in the nation, agriculture plays a surprisingly minor role for the current occupant of the House seat, Steve King.
King is running almost the polar opposite campaign strategy as Scholten, if he can be said to be running at all. He does no town halls; local events are usually quiet affairs with area Chambers of Commerce. He has refused a challenge from Scholten for three debates (or a free-throw shooting contest), claiming, “There’s not a clear division on issues.” He’s coasting on his eight terms of service, name ID, and a strong conservative lean to rubber-stamp his way back to Washington.
Instead of relating to local constituents, King perpetually plays to the cheap seats with far-right, divisive rhetoric, demonizing liberal opponents and retweeting white supremacists. “He focuses on extreme conservative, cable talk show-driven issues,” said local journalist Doug Burns. “His appeal is cultural, it’s identity politics for the right.”
For King’s entire career, this has worked; he posted over 59 percent of the vote in seven of his eight general elections, and defeated Christie Vilsack, wife of the former governor, by 8 points in the other race in 2012. But there’s potentially something different in the air in 2018, and in letters to the editor throughout northwest Iowa: ex-Republicans declaring their opposition to the conservative firebrand.
“I have been a life-long Republican but I am unable to vote for Steve King who is well known for his racist views and truly is an embarrassment to our state,” wrote Raymond Beebe in the Forest City Summit. The Lakes News Shopper published John Adams Sr. of Arnolds Park, father of the newspaper’s owner, another ex-Republican who accused King of having a “dark heart” for siding with the National Rifle Association after a string of school shootings.
Nicole Baart, an author and pastor’s wife who once ran Northwest Iowa Right to Life, wrote to her paper, “I’m grateful to have found a candidate… that allows me to vote my values without feeling like I have to turn a blind eye to questionable morality, angry and offensive rhetoric, or racism.” David Johnson, a state senator who left the Republican Party to protest Trump and now serves as an independent, has also gotten behind Scholten. “We can’t make the 4th District an island of white men,” he told me in Spencer.
The Scholten campaign has reached out to these disaffected former King supporters, most of whom say they don’t agree with everything Scholten believes, but like his approach and willingness to engage. “I listened to him for an hour in Mason City,” said Beebe, a recently retired businessman who supported Trump in 2016, something he told me he looks upon with regret. “I was very impressed with him; he has strong Iowa values.”
Adams, a self-described Republican for “78 of my 79 years,” was a co-chair of the Dickinson County Republican party; this year he joined up with county Democrats. His goal is to get Scholten even with King in the county. “It’s been a bedrock of Republicanism,” he said. “But J.D. will stand up for northwest Iowa and not be absent like King.”
Much of this nascent opposition references how King’s high-profile, sensationalized rhetoric makes Iowa look bad and makes it harder to recruit young people to live in the district. It’s also out of touch with Iowa’s modern melting pot. Baart has adopted three children from Africa, Adams has an African-American granddaughter, and Beebe takes pride in his county taking in Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria and helping them find housing.
King has played the role of the party’s crazy uncle for decades, but some have finally reached their breaking point. “His main calling in life seems to be to offend people,” said John Adams Sr. But far from the MSNBC headlines, what you hear more loudly in the district about King is that he’s just an ineffective politician.
“If you look at his voting record, he’s co-sponsored one bill that’s become law in 16 years, to name a post office in Council Bluffs,” said Harold Prior of the Dickinson County Democrats. King is a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee who is not on the conference committee for the pending 2018 farm bill. His main amendment to the farm bill would nullify measures in the states to reduce confinement of animals in cages. “The Humane Society has called King public enemy No. 1 and there is no No. 2,” Scholten said. (A Facebook site called Dogs for Scholten features dozens of local pets in campaign T-shirts standing next to yard signs, in a nod to King’s nearly pathological crusade against animal welfare.)
Though the Iowa Farm Bureau, criticized as a cutout for Big Ag and insurance interests, endorsed King, one local chapter in Winnebago County did not, highlighting his failure to fight for farmers. King points to a recent deal between Iowa and Taiwan to increase soybean sales as reflective of his attentiveness to the district. But others are skeptical.
“I’m on three economic development boards,” said Doug Burns. “I’ve been involved in a lot of projects and I can’t think of any in which Congressman King played a leading role. I can name 100 things [Sen.] Chuck Grassley and [Republican Rep.] David Young have done, I can’t identify one for King.” Some put the two complaints together, arguing that King spends so much time developing memes, taking trips to Austria to huddle with far-right nationalists, and stirring up outrage that he doesn’t have anything left to attend to local needs.
King’s real blind spot can be seen in his strident anti-immigrant positions. He’s known nationally for saying that immigrants are habitual drug smugglers with “calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling marijuana through the desert, and echoing white nationalist Europeans with sentiments like, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
One local activist, Allison Engel, borrowed these lines for a one-act play she wrote about King’s ancestors from Germany, informed by genealogical records. In the play, King’s forbearers recoil while witnessing the congressman’s xenophobic rhetoric, accusing him of forgetting where he came from. For example, though King is a leader of the English-only movement, his own statements reveal that his grandparents likely spoke German for decades while living in Iowa. “Meet Steve King’s Ancestors” has been performed with local actors at three fundraisers for Scholten.
“We’re celebrating his ancestors,” Engel told me. “They endured hard times and thrived. It’s everyone’s story.”
But even more hypocritical than King’s criticism of immigrants, when he is a typical American child of immigrants, is the fact that his district increasingly relies on immigrant, and often undocumented, labor.
Visit any small town in the 4th District, and the shiniest new building on the main drag is a Mexican restaurant. In Spencer there was a Taqueria Tapatio; in Estherville it was Don Jose’s. While officially, Iowa is still 91 percent white and 6 percent Hispanic, that number is growing as industrial agricultural operations seek out immigrants for jobs. A recent Esquire article found that the family of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has a dairy farm in Sibley that uses undocumented labor, the norm across the region. At town halls, Scholten refers to numerous agriculture producers who cannot find American citizens to harvest fields or work in livestock and dairy plants. It’s the biggest open secret in the district: Its economy runs on immigrants.
While King sows divisions online, Scholten says immigration comes up in virtually every town hall. He supports a modernized visa program, a path to citizenship, and legalization for Dreamers. But while one would think that would be an impediment in the home of Steve King, he says that Republicans thank him for his positions afterward.
Scholten has done outreach to Latino communities, hiring a Spanish-speaking field organizer. “People are coming here for the American dream,” he said. “Representative King is so far removed from reality. I use a quote from Ronald Reagan, ‘Our doors are open to all who have the will and heart to be here.’”
Scholten started the fall campaign down to King by 22 points. Since then, public polls have shrunk that margin to 10, and an internal poll for the Scholten campaign in September narrowed it even more to 6, with King’s re-elect at only 43 percent, and with Scholten having plenty of room to raise name recognition. A new TV ad, filmed on a baseball field surrounded by corn stalks like the “Field of Dreams” and produced by the team that made the “Iron Stache” viral ad for Wisconsin House candidate Randy Bryce, could provide an assist.
A change to voting laws in Iowa may further hinder King’s re-election hopes. In 2017, the state legislature banned straight-ticket voting, forcing voters to check off each candidate, instead of just flipping a switch for all members of one party. This was done to prevent Democrats from voting in all their members in one shot, but now it means Republicans in Iowa’s 4th must affirmatively pull the lever for King. “For people who held their nose and voted for King in past, this is three times that,” said Doug Burns.
Still, the R+11 district is a long shot. 538 gives King a 90 percent chance of victory.
Nevertheless, at Woodbury County’s Harry Hopkins dinner in Sioux City, held in a carpenter’s union hall, the mood was upbeat. “I can honestly say that [Scholten] is the best candidate we’ve had in a long time,” said the county party chair, Jeremy Dumkrieger, to attendees. “He’s a reason to vote for something, not just a name to throw out Steve King.” Rep. Ryan added another selling point: As a former pitcher, he’d be a real ringer in the congressional baseball game.
“It’s good to be home,” Scholten said as he took the stage.
Any Iowa Democrat running for Congress before a presidential year would attract support from would-be presidential candidates; Scholten has events with Julián Castro and Sanders lined up along with the Booker event Monday, and others have offered staff support. But they may be feeling the energy in the district, and the chance to unseat one of the country’s more notorious conservative bomb-throwers. To Scholten, it’s all about showing up in “Sioux City Sue,” one county and one voter at a time.
“I got introduced to a guy at the Sioux County fair,” he explains as he drives down a rural road in his Winnebago. “The guy was obviously not a Democrat. He started talking about Trump and went straight into his hole. He said the worst things you can say about a human being about Hillary Clinton, started using slurs. I lost it on him. I might have cursed a few times. I said, ‘Listen, you may never vote for me, that’s fine. But I’m going to beat Steve King. And when I do, I’m going to come back to the Sioux County fair, and I’ll look you straight in the eye when I talk about issues and what I voted on. Can you say that about your representative now? No.”
Scholten made a left into Estherville. “When I got done, he was thrown back a bit. And then he said, ‘I’ll have to check out your website.’”
Correction: October 15, 2018
An earlier version of this story stated that Rob Sand is running for Iowa state treasurer. He is a candidate for Iowa state auditor.