J.D. Scholten, the progressive populist who nearly defeated Steve King two years ago in Iowa’s ruby-red 4th Congressional District, conceded to Republican state Sen. Randy Feenstra. As of Tuesday night, Scholten came in almost 30 points behind his opponent, who unseated King, a nine-term incumbent and white nationalist who had been censured by his colleagues in the House and stripped of his committee assignments, in the primary.
After King’s loss, analysts like the Cook Political Report downgraded the district from “tilt Republican” to “solid Republican.” This also led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which encouraged Scholten to run against King a second time, to deprioritize the race.
“Building trust takes time and standing up to the status quo and establishment is no easy feat,” Scholten said on Tuesday night in a statement.
Scholten had been laser-focused on the issues that led to his unexpected success in 2018: Working toward universal health care, breaking up corporate monopolies, and enacting campaign finance reform. He continued to dramatically outraise his opponent through mostly small-dollar donations. He raised $815,637 in the third quarter alone, according to Federal Election Commission filings, compared with Feenstra’s $456,869. And a recent poll from Monmouth University had previously found Scholten closing the gap, with his GOP opponent, who’s backed by President Donald Trump, holding a 48 percent to 42 percent lead among registered voters.
Scholten also ran an entirely grassroots campaign that prioritized meeting and listening to voters, wrapping up a 374-town tour (that adhered to social distancing guidelines) across the sprawling rural district in late October. Feenstra, meanwhile, avoided voters altogether. The state senator, who has corporate donors and is just as anti-immigrant and pro-Trump as King is, hadn’t made as many public appearances as Scholten and only debated him once. Trump won the district by about 27 points in 2016.
In July, Scholten officially rejected the possibility of receiving any help from the DCCC, as The Intercept previously reported, saying that he doesn’t need their support to win and that he will continue to run the campaign his way. “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.”
As a first-time candidate, Scholten came within 3 percentage points of beating King and built a remarkable base of support in the process. 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. He almost didn’t run for the seat again, at one point openly weighing a run for the Senate seat currently held by Joni Ernst. But DCCC head Rep. Cheri Bustos “begged” him to run against King a second time, he said, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer helped clear the field for Theresa Greenfield, who’s now the Democratic Senate nominee.
“The way the DCCC’s system is, candidates like me, they don’t really care much about,” Scholten said over the summer. “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.”