Fort Dodge, Iowa

On a stormy October afternoon, J.D. Scholten, the Democratic nominee for the United States House seat representing Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, pulled his used Winnebago into the parking lot of the community college where he was scheduled to hold a town-hall meeting. Even with a fluttering American flag and the candidate’s name painted across the side, the RV still didn’t look like much.

“I tried to clean it up for you,” the 6-foot-6 Scholten told me as he narrowly avoided hitting his head against the camper’s lofted bed.

The candidate, a 38-year-old former professional-baseball pitcher, was full of the overcompensating energy of someone who hasn’t slept in weeks. In the past 36 days, he’d held 39 town halls, one for every county in the district—each of which he has visited at least three times.

“The first time was, ‘Good luck and bless you for trying,’” Scholten said of his tour. “The second time was, ‘Oh, you’re not just an alternative, you’re actually for something.’ And tonight, tonight you’ll see hope.”

Hope has long been a foreign concept for liberals in this part of Iowa, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 70,000. Scholten is running against Representative Steve King, the eight-term Republican incumbent known for the bigoted views that he expresses on social media and defends on the House floor.

Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies. https://t.co/4nxLipafWO

— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) March 12, 2017

Scholten’s battle will be uphill. In the 2016 election, King beat his Democratic opponent by 22 points after fending off a comparatively moderate challenger in the Republican primary by a similar margin.

“I’m not naive enough to think I’m going to get 70,000 Republicans to vote for a Democrat,” he said. “But you used to hear, ‘Oh, that’s just Steve being Steve,’ like they were talking about some weird uncle. The big difference is that now a lot of folks are saying ‘enough’s enough.’”

Scholten’s assessment is more than bravado. While nine out of 10 Iowans recognize King’s name, roughly half disapprove of his work in Congress, according to research contracted by the Democrat’s campaign. Despite representing the district that has lead the United States in corn, soybean, pork, and egg production for the past 16 years, King has never been the primary sponsor of any agricultural legislation that passed the House. He’s sponsored exactly one successful bill: a proposal to rename an Iowa post office in a locality that isn’t even in his district.

It is against that backdrop that Scholten and his RV have outraised the King campaign four-to-one in the latest fund-raising quarter, and the Democrat currently trails the incumbent by 10 points, according to an Emerson College poll. Scholten’s internal polling puts him only 6 points behind.

(King’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

The fourth is a heavily conservative, largely rural district that encompasses the whole of northwestern Iowa. Only one of its 39 counties voted majority Democratic in the last election. Scholten’s success depends not only on rallying Democrats but also on convincing independents and some Republicans to turn away from King. Local political observers ranging from state senators to organizers agree that this is precisely what is happening.

“I don’t think he’s ever done anything,” Ray Beebe, a 76-year-old retired business executive, said of King. “He rants, he raves, he seems to appeal to neo-Nazi groups in Austria.”

A lifelong Republican, Beebe said he plans to vote for Scholten to “get the stench out of the kitchen.” This might be the Midwestern iteration of the blue wave: growing numbers of voters deducing that even a Democrat smells sweeter than an ineffective and irrational Republican.

Like his Winnebago, J.D. Scholten was built in the fourth district, has traveled widely, and ended up right back where he started.

Scholten, who is white, was born in Ames in 1980 and raised in Sioux City. He played baseball at the University of Nebraska, and then pitched professionally in seven different countries. Until recently, he worked as a paralegal in Seattle, Washington and had, he insists, no interest in running for office.

And then, in 2016, Scholten went home for Thanksgiving and received strict instructions from his late grandmother, the matriarch of a fifth-generation Iowa family: “You need to move back home and take care of the farm.”

Asked why he chose to run for Congress rather than a state office—or literally take care of the farm—Scholten grinned.

“Go big or go home,” he said. “I did both.”

Unlike the spectacle of presidential-primary season in Iowa, the relative quiet of a midterm election allows Scholten to focus on the needs of his district’s residents—and their needs are dire. Today, according to the Department of Agriculture, only 7.8 cents of each dollar that consumers spend on agricultural products makes it back to the farmer—an all-time low. President Trump’s tariffs have contributed to the precarious state of the farm economy, but Scholten insists that the problem is older than the recent trade war.

“If the tariffs didn’t exist, there’d still be a struggle,” he said. “It has to do with market consolidation. Farmers are getting squeezed on the input and the output. We’ve had four years of low commodity prices, and there’s going to be a fifth.”

Scholten wants to protect family farms from predatory corporations and volatile financial markets. He believes that this task will require new agricultural legislation, but also immigration reform. If elected, Scholten intends to remind the federal government that places like his district—where the population has shrunk nearly every year since 1980—need immigrant labor now more than ever.

Such views put him at stark odds with King, who enjoys the support of xenophobic groups such as Americans for Legal Immigration, which has given him a 100 percent score for his anti-immigrant positions. Scholten, however, does not hold an activist position on immigration. The candidate said that he supports reforming Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the arm of the Department of Homeland Security that executes deportations, but he added that he doesn’t support abolishing the agency.

Yet, for all of the attention that King and other Republicans lavish on immigration, the consensus on the ground seems to be that health care is the most pressing question for many voters. The issue has been at the forefront of the local debate ever since 2016, when Republican Governor Kim Reynolds privatized Medicaid with a “managed care” system in which corporations administer benefits using state funding.

Together with a shortage of rural doctors, the introduction of a profit motive into the administration of public health care has had disastrous consequences. Hundreds of claims have been wrongly denied, sometimes at the cost of people’s lives. Most gravely in a state with an aging population, the new regime has drastically cut in-home health services for disabled and elderly folks.

Scholten believes that the ultimate solution for these problems is a version of Medicare for All. But in the short term, the Democrat thinks much of the suffering can be alleviated by establishing a public option—where a government-administered health plan competes with private companies on the insurance exchanges—and a Medicare buy-in for people 55 for older who lack sufficient employer-based insurance.

“A healthy society takes care of those in need,” said Dr. Charles Kniker, 78, an ordained pastor and former professor of education at Iowa State University, who spends much of his time advocating for the rights of people whom he calls “elder orphans.”

“J.D. will do that better than Steve,” said Kniker.

The last time Democrats rose to power in northwestern Iowa was during the farm crisis of the 1980s, when low commodity prices pushed many small farmers first into debt and then into ruin. Reviving the prairie populism first birthed from a farm crash at the end of the 19th century, a group of populist politicians and activists fought to restructure the agricultural industry. Many were elected, and engaged constituents in the political process by holding town-hall meetings to ask what sort of legislation they should take to Washington.

Scholten’s political heroes, Senator Tom Harkin (who represented Iowa, first in the House, and then in the Senate, for 40 years before his retirement in 2015) and Representative Berkley Bedell (who served six terms in the House in the 1970s and ’80s), were two of these legendary progressives. During the tour of the RV, the candidate eagerly paraphrased a vintage Bedell campaign poster he keeps on board, “The 1% own the government, what are you, the 99%, going to do about it?”

Scholten’s campaign lifts many of its strategies from the “prairie progressive” handbook, operating under the principle that the way to earn voters’ trust is to meet them where they are and listen to what they have to say. The candidate focuses on engaging small-town newspapers. Instead of holding large rallies in major urban centers, Scholten drives the RV through single-street towns where people wander over and give him home-grown tomatoes, surprised that a politician has driven all the way to their corner of the world.

“We’ve gone into towns where Democrats haven’t been in years,” said Scholten’s political director, Todd Prieb.

The approach seems to be working with some Republican voters. Ryan O’Leary, a 31-year-old veteran of the Iowa National Guard from the 10,000-person town of Carroll, said he’d planned to vote for King, but reconsidered after investigating his legislative record.

“Carroll is heavily Republican,” O’Leary said. “But J.D. did his town hall here and people liked it. I think people are going to switch. It’s like when Trump got elected—he’s just not a career politician.”

That comparison to Trump might unnerve some national Democrats, but Scholten tends to play down his affiliation with the Democratic Party, portraying himself as a concerned community member rather than as a radical ideologue. He has said he supports the Second Amendment (but also supports universal background checks for gun purchases, a national study of gun violence, and a ban on assault-style weapons), and is vocal about his Catholic faith, but his willingness to compromise with conservatives does not extend to every issue. Asked directly whether he would ever support any legislation that would restrict women’s access to abortion, Scholten said that he would not.

For all of the buzz around Scholten, The Cook Political Report still rates the fourth-district race as “Likely Republican,” meaning it expects King to hold on to his seat. The forecast, while bleak, is not exactly a surprise—the district has favored GOP candidates for over 20 years. And yet there have been times when progressive politics have prospered in traditional conservative strongholds—times that, like the current moment, were periods of economic hardship for farmers.

Scholten’s Winnebago is more than an object lesson in utilitarian thrift—it is an attempt to capitalize on a kind of political nostalgia, a throwback that looks to the past for a path to a better future. With his RV, the candidate seems to be saying that if Democrats are to defeat their conservative adversaries in the Farm Belt, they need a way of embodying their politics that bears witness to the particularities of Midwestern life. By driving through towns where people recall the days when progressives showed up to ask residents about crops and insurance, Scholten hopes to remind his district that, not long ago, their state offered Iowans old and new the opportunity to earn an honest living and build a dignified life.

After Scholten’s town-hall meeting in Fort Dodge ended that wet October evening, Diana Condon, 69, took out her checkbook to make a small donation to the campaign. She and her husband, Joe Condon, 73, have retired to their farm outside Barnum, Iowa. Unlike many of their neighbors, they said, neither of them had ever voted for King.

“I don’t hate him,” Diana Condon said of her representative, the tone of her voice rubbing against the edges of “Iowa Nice,” “but I sure don’t like him.”

Asked what issues were most important to them, the Condons glanced at each other. “I need someone to think about health care,” Diana Condon went on, “The costs for medication are so high, and we’re on a fixed income.”

As she spoke, her husband pulled her wheelchair away from the table. Condon lost her knee to a staph infection a few years ago. The problem should have been easily treatable, but the medical services in their area were dangerously subpar.

“The doctors weren’t doing the proper thing,” Joe Condon said.

Outside the community college, yet another torrential downpour rushed over the already inundated town. The rain was unseasonable and unwelcome. The harvest was approaching. There was anxiety in the air.

As Scholten got back on the Winnebago, headed for the next stop on his long and winding district-wide tour, the Condons drove off in the rain, hoping that the candidate would soon be able to deliver some much-needed help back to the farm.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that gerrymandering was a factor when the Fourth Congressional District was redrawn after the 2010 census. In fact, Iowa uses a nonpartisan commission to determine district boundaries. The text has been updated.