J.D. Scholten, the progressive populist who nearly defeated Steve King in Iowa’s deep-red 4th Congressional District in 2018, wants the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to know that his campaign doesn’t want or need their help. The falling out comes as the House Democrats’ campaign arm, which encouraged him to run against King a second time, has de-prioritized the race; King, a white supremacist, lost his primary, and the district was downgraded from “tilt Republican” to “solid Republican.” But it’s still competitive: Scholten is currently leading his new Republican rival in fundraising by hundreds of thousands of dollars, and his campaign’s internal polling shows the two in a statistical dead heat.
Now, Scholten is rejecting the possibility of support and funds from the House Democrats’ campaign arm, saying he is determined to run the campaign his way. The DCCC, for its part, told Scholten he must meet its requirements, which would involve changing his campaign strategy, to receive funding — a very different message than in 2019 when DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos told Scholten it would go “all in” on his race against King.
“We have an authentic campaign that reflects who I am and my vision for this district,” Scholten said in a statement announcing the decision. “We won’t be beholden to special interests or the DCCC; instead, we’re reaching out to folks across the political spectrum to earn votes.”
Scholten is especially frustrated by the DCCC’s approach to supporting moderate candidates who focus on traditional fundraising from big-dollar donors. “The DCCC-type of campaign where you sit at home and fundraise all day doesn’t win respect, trust, or elections in these parts and wouldn’t be a good start to addressing the serious challenges facing rural America,” Scholten wrote.
In 2018, as a first-time candidate, Scholten came within 3 percentage points of beating King, building a remarkable base of grassroots support. He outperformed nearly 40 percent of the candidates in the DCCC’s “Red-to-Blue” program, which targets seats that have a promising chance to flip. But that election cycle, he said, the DCCC didn’t return his calls.
Over a year ago, Bustos reached out and “begged” him to run against King a second time, Scholten recalled, promising the DCCC would make it a top five race. He openly weighed a run for the Senate seat currently held by Joni Ernst, at one point, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer discouraged him from jumping in the race to try to clear the field for Theresa Greenfield, who’s now the Democratic nominee. That’s when Bustos said the House Democrats’ campaign arm would go “all in” on his race if he challenged King again.
Scholten went on to win the Democratic nomination in June, following an uncontested primary. He was preparing for a rematch against King — a white nationalist who had been censured by his colleagues in the House and stripped of his committee assignments — until the incumbent lawmaker lost the Republican primary to state Sen. Randy Feenstra, who was backed by President Donald Trump.
Last week, Scholten reached out to Bustos to check in and see where the DCCC was at, and what she meant by her promise to go “all in” on his bid. During their phone call, Scholten laid out everything they had accomplished last cycle and made his case for why the race, despite King’s loss, could present a huge opportunity. “And it just got to the point where they’re trying to dangle carrots in front of us and I was like, you know what, I’m not having it,” he said. “They wanna be in all our meetings, they want us to use their consultants and stuff like that. And I don’t feel comfortable doing that at this time.”
After discussing with his team, Scholten said, he decided, “We don’t need them and what we want is to run the campaign similar to last time and that’s what’s going to win this race.” Completely refusing the DCCC’s help also means the campaign will have to provide its own field program and do its own mailing, which Red to Blue candidates are armed with additional “organizational and fundraising support.” “That’s part of it: We didn’t feel that what they do provides enough value for what we’re trying to do,” he said.
“JD Scholten is a strong candidate working to earn voters’ trust in rural Iowa,” Cole Leiter, a DCCC spokesperson, said in a statement. “We have built a big battlefield and every candidate is going to make their own decisions about how to run their race. We wish him well.”
Though King’s defeat changed the dynamics of the race, Scholten’s campaign believes that the issues, namely Medicare for All and his vow to take on the corporate interests exploiting the second largest agricultural district in the country, will help flip the district come November. Scholten’s platform stands in stark contrast to the more moderate talking points and messaging the party establishment pushes on Democratic candidates running in red districts.
In 2018, for example, the DCCC commissioned a survey and analysis to help develop its messaging on health care. The messaging handouts, The Intercept reported at the time, “made clear where the party wants its candidates to stand when it comes to health care reform: preferably nowhere, but certainly not with single-payer advocates.” Party elites also end up influencing campaign strategy, Scholten noted. In a few weeks, his campaign will launch a tour that will go through all 375 towns in the district (while adhering to health and safety guidelines.)
“They would not agree that I should go to all 375 towns even though that’s how we earn votes,” he told The Intercept. “They want me to stay at home and just fundraise, be on the phone from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to bed.”
The Scholten campaign brought in a haul of nearly $620,000 in the second quarter of the fundraising year, making it the largest ever in a second quarter for any Democrat who has run for the seat. About 96 percent of the campaign’s contributions last quarter were under $200, thanks to its online small donor base.
“The way the DCCC’s system is, candidates like me, they don’t really care much about,” he said. “If I could self fund, they’d be all over me. I mean, the organizing and just the grassroots organization, we created something that’s so authentic and so organic that I don’t think they know how to deal with something like that. We need more working-class people in D.C., and their system is not made for that.”
Correction: July 29, 2020, 6:26 p.m.
The article has been updated to clarify that so-called Red to Blue candidates receive additional support from the DCCC, but not necessarily in the form of free mailings and field programs, as the article originally stated.