The 2020 campaign had been going well for J.D. Scholten, the former minor league pitcher turned Democratic congressional candidate in Iowa.
He had raised more than $1 million in a bid to unseat Representative Steve King, the nine-term Republican congressman who had alienated voters with his racist comments about immigration. Kevin Costner had narrated an ad for Mr. Scholten, evoking the Iowa landscape in “Field of Dreams.” National Democrats such as Cory Booker and Julián Castro had lined up to endorse him.
But just when it seemed the momentum was in Mr. Scholten’s favor, the dynamics shifted. In a dramatic turn of events in Tuesday’s primary election, Mr. King was defeated by another Republican, Randy Feenstra.
With the removal of Mr. King, who had been ostracized even within his own party, the seat Democrats hoped to flip appears to be further out of reach. Mr. Scholten was only about 10,000 votes shy of defeating Mr. King in their previous matchup in 2018. But Republican voters outnumber Democrats in the congressional district, Iowa’s Fourth, by more than 70,000.
Now, it’s almost as if Iowa Democrats are mourning Mr. King’s primary defeat as much as any of his Republican supporters.
We spoke to Mr. Scholten about what this means for his campaign between now and Nov. 3, when he will face Mr. Feenstra in the general election.
He seemed undeterred and said he planned to hit the road in his R.V., sleeping in Walmart parking lots during campaign trips through the 39-county district, a rural swath of the state that stretches from Sioux City to Mason City to Ames. (Mr. Feenstra didn’t respond to our request for an interview.)
Mr. Scholten said his strategy would remain the same, but a new theme emerged: He suggested that Mr. Feenstra is beholden to outside interests. As usual, our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Hi. You tweeted this morning that your campaign was responsible for ousting Steve King, but his defeat by a Republican primary challenger must be bittersweet.
Not at all. We laid the groundwork in 2018 and he wouldn’t have had a competitive primary if not for what we were able to do. I think what America needs is for people like Steve King to have their voices quieted, and I think this is a huge step forward for America. What we’re trying to do here in the Fourth District is the same thing we did last time. It’s not talking about who we’re against or what we’re against, but what we’re for.
But doesn’t this mean you have a tougher campaign ahead?
The people who are saying this race is an uphill battle as of now are the same people who told me that last time. We’re going to work our tails off, get out there with our campaign R.V., which we named Sioux City Sue. We’re going to go out and earn your vote. I spent more nights in Walmart parking lots the last few months of the campaign last cycle than I did in my own bed.
We’re the second biggest agriculture-producing district in America. We’re 39 counties, very rural, and in order to compete and connect with folks where they’re at, you’ve got to get out there. This past fall we went to 38 of 39 counties and towns of under 1,000 people and we called it the “Don’t Forget About Us” tour. Some of these communities are fighting to keep their grocery stores. Some have to drive 30 minutes to buy fresh produce. When farmers aren’t making a dime, something isn’t adding up.
How do you change your strategy?
It literally doesn’t change. We go out there and campaign everywhere and, like I said, it doesn’t matter who you are, we’re going to invite you to the table. If you came on the road with us last time, we barely mentioned Steve King.
There’s not enough people fighting for something who are running for office. The people of the Fourth District are sick of divisive politics. It’s not enough just not being Steve King. We need to have something for this district and the ability to bring people together. And that’s what we plan to do.
Do you intend to make it a campaign issue that Mr. Feenstra did not attack Mr. King’s racism?
He talks about how much of a man he is of faith. And there’s a Proverbs message that really is near and dear to my heart. It’s “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, ensure justice for those being crushed.” To me, the absence of all five of the Republicans even addressing the George Floyd death or any of these protests or anything like that, I feel that’s a huge issue. I think that’s the type of people we don’t need to go to Congress.
What are the differences between Mr. King and Mr. Feenstra?
I would say they are both extremely conservative, but with King, I’ll say he is his own man. If you put the racism and the controversy aside, you get an anti-establishment person. I feel that fits this district.
With Feenstra, you see a career politician. In his campaign, you saw a lot of outside influence, whether it’s Des Moines or D.C., you saw what Congressman King referred to as the D.C. swamp. Whether it’s taking money from corporations, whether it’s the extremely wealthy coastal people influencing this primary.
That goes to the heart of my campaign, where we don’t take corporate PAC money. We don’t need more tax breaks for these multinational corporations. What we need to do is enforce our antitrust laws.
Do you expect to get any help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee?
Before this race, the D.C.C.C. called and begged me to run against King for a second time and said we’d be a top-five race. To be honest, we haven’t had much discussion with them since we launched. Last cycle they didn’t return my phone calls. That’s all I know right now. That’s where we’re at. They’ve been helpful by not getting in our way.