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Former Pitcher Hopes To Flip Iowa's 4th Congressional District

John Pemble/IPR file
Rep. King speaks at the 2016 Iowa State Fair; Scholten speaks at the 2018 Iowa State Fair

There’s an old saying in baseball that “good pitching beats good hitting.” In Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, a former minor league baseball pitcher is hoping to bring enough heat to defeat eight-term Republican Congressman Steve King, R-Kiron. But it’s a big challenge in a district that is reliably Republican.

J.D. Scholten has been traveling the 4th district's 39 counties in his Winnebago RV, named the "Sioux City Sue". The Democrat from Sioux City has been talking to Democrats and Republicans about modernizing the economy, market consolidation that’s hurting farmers and the demand for affordable health care.

He says when he stops to fill up for gas, he sees donation boxes for people who are sick.

“And we live in the wealthiest country in the world and that’s how people pay for their health care,” Scholten said to a crowd during a town hall in Plymouth County.

Scholten wants to change that. His long-term vision is an expansion of federal Medicare to cover everyone, not just senior Americans.

“We need to come together as America to find a solution and say ‘you know what, health is a priority’, "Scholten said in an interview with Iowa Public Radio. “If there’s another option, I’m for it, but right now there aren’t other options, and you just hear, everybody – on my first 39 county tour – everybody has a health care story.”

Scholten says he is different from the average person in Congress: He is 20 years younger and, as he jokes, a million dollars short.

“He’s really the epitome of an outsider,” said Bradley Best, a political science professor from Buena Vista University in Storm Lake. “He has the appeal of a candidate who is wholly untainted by the politics and really the institution that he now seeks to become a part of.”

Best says Scholten has no record of error; but he also has no record to run on.

“[Congressman Steve] King on the other hand is very, very good at articulating his record. He’s very, very good at defending himself from criticism,” Best said.

King remains popular in the district despite controversies such as his endorsement this month of a white nationalist candidate in a mayor’s race in Canada.

He has refused to debate Scholten because he says people know where he stands. He hasn’t been barnstorming like Scholten, but he is holding some meet and greets, appearing at state events like the recent Highway-20 celebration in Ida County, and speaking to his base at party fundraisers

At a GOP fundraiser in Webster County a couple of weeks ago, King touted a recent meeting with President Donald Trump where the two discussed a bill King introduced that would make abortion a crime once a fetus has a heartbeat.

“And he was asking me at one point would I provide any exceptions in the heartbeat bill in Washington – exceptions for rape or incest. And I said, 'No, Mr. President. Because that baby doesn’t deserve to be executed for the crime of the father'," said King, to lots of applause.

In an interview with Iowa Public Radio, King said if he is re-elected, he’ll continue his efforts on the bill.

“That gets to all of our hearts, I mean, would you stop the beating heart of an innocent, unborn baby?” King said. “And this will save the lives of at least 95 percent of the babies that are currently being aborted.”

Scholten does not include abortion in his stump speeches. When he answers questions on it, he says he holds his own views as a Catholic, but the federal government should not get between a woman and her doctor.

Bradley Best from Buena Vista University says abortion is an important issue, but it’s not likely to determine who wins.

“I simply do not sense there are a large number of persuadable voters in this election,” Best said. “I think in the 4th Congressional District, I think that the party lines have been drawn very firmly.”

But Best says Scholten is crafting a more engaging, relatable image than past Democratic challengers. And that could move the needle.

For example, he speaks directly to farmers in the district when he talks about Trump’s tariffs and trade war.

“We’re bearing the brunt,” Scholten said. “You don’t see New York real estate getting hit. You don’t see Texas soil getting hit. You don’t see Silicon Valley getting hit. The 4th District is bearing the brunt of these trade wars.”

In June, King joined Iowa’s congressional delegation in writing a letter to Trump urging him to avoid a trade war. Since then, he says there’s been a lot of progress in the trade negotiations.

“The tariffs were the tools to get people to the table,” King said. “That wasn’t going to be my strategy. I have been a free trader all along. But when the president initiates tariffs to launch these negotiations as he has, then we look for what’s the best path to go forward.”

On immigration, an important topic in a district that has a significant immigrant workforce at places like pork plants and grain elevators, Scholten says he wants immigration reform and an easier path to citizenship, but says the country needs to have strong borders. King wants to build a wall along the border with Mexico and pass legislation he drafted called "the New IDEA Act", which would turn down tax deductions for wages for undocumented immigrants.

In a poll King’s campaign released Monday from WPA Intelligence, King is leading the race by 18 points. A poll Scholten’s office released mid-September from Expedition Strategies showed he was down by six points.  Scholten polls one point behind King in numbers released by Change Research Monday night. The district has a Republican edge, as 40 percent of the voters are registered Republican, while 25 percent are registered Democrats.

Brian Welch, an obstetrician from Fort Dodge and a registered Republican, said he is voting for King.

“You can believe what Steve King tells you he’s going to do. You can believe what Steve King tells you he believes,” Welch said. “He gives you his position, he stands by it. He is very faithful in representing the Founding Fathers’ principals in the United States.”

Other registered Republicans, like Pat Kenaley, say they have been influenced by Scholten's campaign. Kenaley, an IT professional from Le Mars, said he believes Scholten will work to reach across the aisle. He voted for Scholten last week.

“He’s willing to listen to both sides,” Kenaley said. “He opened his town hall [in Le Mars] with the fact that he thinks everybody’s opinion has value and he didn’t want anybody there no matter what their party affiliation is, to feel like they couldn’t say what they believe.”

In his last eight election wins, King has never received less than 53 percent of the vote. But Scholten says he sees a lot of frustration on both sides of the aisle, and he sees a lot of passion. He’s hoping to direct that passion to his campaign.

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.