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Congressional Runner-up Helps Democrats Engage with Rural Iowa

John Pemble/IPR
J.D. Scholten speaks at the Des Moines Register Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair in 2018.

Democrats running for president have been spending a lot more time this cycle talking to voters in western Iowa, which is predominately Republican and rural. Many of them are visiting that part of the state with J.D. Scholten, a former congressional candidate from their party who almost beat an embattled Republican congressman last year.

“We built something this last cycle and I hope you guys take it further,” Scholten said to a crowd gathered at The Mucky Duck Pub in Ames, Iowa ahead of the first Democratic presidential debate.

“If I happen to run for something I’m going to take it from you guys and go even further,” he said to applause.

The 6’6 former minor league baseball player is referencing his close loss to Republican Congressman Steve King. Scholten came within just three points.  It’s the closest any challenger has come to defeating the nine-term congressman.  Jeri Neal, who came that day to watch the debate, voted for Scholten.

She’s impressed that even though he lost, he hasn’t disappeared from the public eye.

“That probably speaks to his willingness to stand up early on and say ok, we have some issues here let’s talk about these issues,” Neal says. “I think that’s fresh.”

Ariel Nenninger was also at the pub. She wasn’t there to watch the debate; she was just there for dinner with friends. Nenninger voted for Scholten…

“Honestly I didn’t really know that much about him quite frankly but I didn’t like anything Steve King really stood for,” Nenninger said.

Nobody really knew that much about Scholten when he launched his campaign. But he spent a lot of time crisscrossing the district’s 39 counties in his R.V. dubbed Sioux City Sue, named after his hometown of Sioux City.

“I spent more nights in a Wal-Mart parking lot than I did in my home bed the last two months of the campaign,” Scholten said with a chuckle.

Since losing the race, Scholten has taken advantage of where Iowa falls in the presidential nominating process. He started a non-profit in January focused on raising awareness for the Earned Income Tax Credit. He now serves on the board an initiative meant to reengage Democrats with rural America called One Country.

Scholten says the candidates need to talk about the strain farmers and manufacturers are feeling from tariffs imposed by the Trump administration.

“Not only do we need to connect the dots between the rural voter and Democrats for the presidential election,” Scholten said. “But if we have any chance to retake the senate and hold it we have to start doing better in districts like my district.”

Scholten has held a dozen events with presidential candidates.

“A big thank you to J-D Scholten,” South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said to a crowd in Sioux City in early July. “I’m not sure what his plans are but I know Washington could use a few more people like him. Just putting that out there.”

But Steve King might not be the GOP’s pick to run in this congressional district next year. He was stripped of his committee assignments in January by House GOP leaders for racist comments he made to a reporter. King says he was misquoted.  Now he faces a strong Republican primary challenger, who’s raised a lot more money than King.

King says he still represents Iowa’s fourth congressional district.

“I made promises years ago I said if you elect me to this job I will use this seat to move the political center to the right,” King said to IPR after a heated town-hall in Hampton, Iowa in June. “There isn’t anybody that will disagree that I have done that.” 

But King’s presence in this district has made it attractive for Democratic presidential candidates to appear with the guy who almost beat him last time. And Scholten just might try for a rematch next year. 

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.