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Scholten Undeterred By 'Uphill' Battle In Second Bid For 4th Congressional District

Democratic candidate for congressional district 4 J.D. Scholten speaks in Spirit Lake to an audience of people in cars who can hear him via a radio transmission. 9/29/2020.
Katie Peikes
Democratic candidate for the 4th Congressional District J.D. Scholten speaks in Spirit Lake to an audience of people in cars who can hear him via radio transmission. 9/29/2020.

A former minor league baseball player is taking a second swing at representing Iowa’s 4th Congressional District after he narrowly lost two years ago. Democrat J.D. Scholten faces a different kind of challenge this year, but is undeterred.

On a recent night in late September, J.D. Scholten stood on the bed of a truck outside of the Dickinson Expo Center in Spirit Lake. His Winnebago R.V. named “Sioux City Sue” served as a backdrop. The Sioux City Democrat broadcast his stump speech to about 60 parked cars through their radios.

I was proud of a lot of different things last cycle and being able to move the needle 24 points,” Scholten said.

That's when Scholten came within three percentage points of Republican Congressman Steve King. Scholten lost by about 10,000 votes.

“But the thing that I'm probably most proud of is the fact that we got 25,000 more votes than there are even registered Democrats in this district,” Scholten said.

Scholten wants to hold onto that base and expand it. He was ready for a rematch with King. Instead, he’s facing State Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, who beat King in the June primary.

“This is uphill,” said Valerie Hennings, a political science professor at Morningside College in Sioux City. “It is uphill for Scholten.”

Hennings said registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in the district and Scholten’s opponent Feenstra has a record of public service in the State Senate, not a record of controversial statements like King that could sway potential voters.

“For those who were very unhappy with Representative King, and in many ways that unhappiness did go across party lines, I think that gave Scholten an advantage then that he doesn’t necessarily have now,” Hennings said.

But Hennings said one key for Scholten is picking up support with voters registered as no party. They make up close to a third of the voters in the 4th District.

Roll Call and the Cook Political Report rate the 4th District as solid Republican with King out of the race. But Scholten told IPR he doesn’t see this race as a bigger challenge. He thinks he matches up against Feenstra better than he did against King.

“King was his own man, and Feenstra not so much,” Scholten said. “And so we're kind of picked filling in that anti-establishment vote. And I think that's where we get some crossover votes.”

Scholten boasts not taking any corporate PAC money. He rejected funding from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this past summer. He said he wants the race to be run out of Sioux City, not Washington D.C.

John Pemble
J.D. Scholten speaks at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox on Aug. 18, 2018.

Scholten said his overall strategy is showing up everywhere and being accessible. As he has traveled the 39-county district in his RV, he’s told people that he’ll always show up and put Iowa over political party. He says he wants to fix the health care system, fight for an economy that works for everyone and secure democracy from special interests.

“This is probably the number one thing that I think both sides agree on is there's way too much special interest, way too much money in politics,” Scholten said. “We need to get it back to a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

The district is one of the largest for agricultural production in the country, so Scholten has been meeting with farmers. He says he wants to enforce antitrust laws and take power away from big corporations. Chris Petersen is a Democrat who farms near Clear Lake in Cerro Gordo County. He said Scholten gets it.

“He understands – it’s pretty short – understands our issues,” Petersen said. “I think he’ll stand up for the working class, whether it be family farms, construction workers, teachers, nurses.”

Beth Vogt, the vice-chair for Crawford County Democrats, said Scholten is a “common person” who wants to help Iowans and rural Iowa.

“He is truly an Iowan who is looking out for rural Iowans in a conservative district where he is willing to listen to everybody,” Vogt said. “This isn’t a political agenda for a far-left extremist. It’s a movement for the people of Iowa. No matter where we stand on our political beliefs, it’s someone to represent everybody.”

Scholten has stopped in all 374 towns in his district to meet with potential voters. On the day of his Spirit Lake parking lot rally, he stopped by a memorial to one of his political heroes, Berkley Bedell. Bedell was the last Democrat to represent northwest Iowa in the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1975 to 1987. Scholten is hoping to follow in his footsteps.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.