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Dem. Melton faces long odds against Feenstra in 4th District race

Melton stands at a campaign event gesturing on the left. Another photo shows Feenstra at a campaign event to the right. The photos are stitched together with red, white and blue lines.
Graphic by Madeleine King
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IPR/Feenstra Facebook Page
Ryan Melton is challenging incumbent Randy Feenstra for the 4th Congressional District seat.

Back in June, Rep. Randy Feenstra stepped onto the stage at the second annual Feenstra Family picnic in Sioux Center. The Hull native grinned as he took in the crowd of northwestern Iowans.

“Sioux County and northwest Iowa couldn't be more different than DC,” he said in his speech, captured on video by the Sioux City Journal. “It is just night and day different.”

The Republican politician has served one term in Congress, after stints as a local city administrator, a county treasurer and three terms in the Iowa Senate.

Now, he is running for a second term as U.S. Representative for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, and his odds of succeeding in the reliably Republican district are high. But, Ryan Melton of Nevada is also placing a bid on the seat – putting him in a long line of Democrats who’ve sought to topple the conservative stronghold.

Feenstra declined to make himself available for an interview for this story. But, at the picnic, he called his constituents’ attention to his Christian values and his conservative voting record.

“I have voted to end taxpayer-funded abortions. I voted to lower taxes for families and farmers. I voted to secure the border. I voted to make America energy independent by the great biofuels of ethanol and biodiesel diesel that we have in this great state,” he said.

Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats in the 44-county region that covers western Iowa and stretches northeast. A little over 45% of active voters are registered Republicans. Only a quarter of active voters are registered as Democrats – outnumbered even by voters registered without a party affiliation.

A map of Iowa is shown outlining the new Congressional Districts.
A map of Iowa's new congressional districts.

To voters like Mike Foutsch, this means Feenstra is the obvious candidate to represent the largely rural region. The Le Mars beef producer said he’s been impressed with how the representative has fought for farmers like him.

Representative Randy Feenstra sits at a desk.
John Pemble
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IPR FILE
Feenstra is favored to win the 4th District race in Iowa.

“He's been working with Chuck Grassley, trying to get some transparency in there to help us individual cattle feeders, so we get a fair price up and down the road,” Foutsch said.

Foutsch said Feenstra has done a good job of replacing Steve King, his predecessor who held the seat for nine terms. Controversial statements surrounding white supremacy led to the longtime congressman being stripped of his committee assignments.

In the 2018 election, King narrowly defeated Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten, a former baseball player, by three points.

Then in 2020, Feenstra took down King in the Republican primaries.

Sioux City realtor Rachel Raak said she admires both politicians. But, she said she’s noticed that Feenstra has stayed out of the news and out of controversy more than King.

“A lot of work can be done quietly,” Raak said. “I believe he's working on behalf of us without causing an uproar.”

Feenstra went on to beat Scholten by 24 points in the 2020 midterms.

Central College political scientist Andrew Green said he expects a similarly sweeping victory for Feenstra this cycle.

"I just look at the facts. I speak the truth, the best I can. If people don't like it, I guess I just don't care."
Ryan Melton, Democratic candidate in 4th district race

“It would probably be the biggest surprise in the United States, if we woke up the morning after the election, and Ryan Melton was elected a congressman from the 4th District of Iowa,” he said.

But, those long odds haven’t deterred Melton. The supervisor at Nationwide Insurance doesn’t have a ton of experience in Iowa politics, but he said that also means he’s not influenced by corporate donors.

“I just look at the facts. I speak the truth, the best I can. If people don't like it, I guess I just don't care,” Melton said.

Ryan Melton speaks to a crowd at Dave's Famous BBQ. He points as he speaks.
Kendall Crawford
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IPR
Ryan Melton, the Democratic candidate for the 4th district race, speaks at a campaign event in Sioux City.

At a campaign stop in Sioux City in late September, Melton hit hard on Democratic platforms, like abortion rights and a need for education funding.

His message hit home with Connie Smith Richardson, a retired educator in Sioux City. She said she wants a candidate committed to allocating more resources to Iowa’s school system.

“I talk to teachers every day that are just struggling with large classes, they can't get enough help,” she said. “I really, really feel for our children.”

Melton also expressed his opposition to carbon capture pipelines. Melton called the projects proposed throughout Iowa “false climate solutions” and criticized the prospect of some landowners involuntarily participating.

“I don’t believe we should be using eminent domain to take private landowner land to enrich private corporations,” he said in a speech to the Siouxland Progressive Women’s luncheon.

It’s an issue that Melton said stretches across party lines. Feenstra wrote an op-ed in support of the technology, which has become divisive among northwest Iowa farmers whose land stands in the pipeline’s path.

“I've had a number of Steve King voters that have come up to me and said they're gonna vote for me because of my stance against carbon capture,” Melton said.

A crowd of women sit at tables spread across Famous Dave's. Ryan Melton holds a mic, speaking to the group.
Kendall Crawford
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IPR
Melton is campaigning against the use of carbon capture pipelines in Iowa.

Melton has repeatedly called upon Feenstra to debate him on topics like carbon capture, but the incumbent refused to appear on Iowa PBS.

The 4th Congressional District race is the only one without a joint forum between candidates.

This lack of engagement frustrates Sioux City resident Joy Gonnerman, who feels like her voice is not being heard in Washington D.C. with Feenstra as her representative. She said she feels like women and LGBT voices in the district are being ignored.

“It's frustrating because he acts as though he speaks for everybody,” Gonnerman said of Feenstra. “He always says ‘Iowans' and I'm not included in that ‘Iowans’ that he's speaking of.”

People like Gonnerman are part of what led Melton to run. He said he knows it’s a tough hill to climb, but it’s important that people can vote for what they value.

“And hopefully it will give others that confidence they need to consider running for public office and to build on that hope,” he said.

Kendall is Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA.