There’s few summer activities more quinesstential than a father/son road trip in an RV. Stopping at small town restaurants. Sleeping in a pull-down bed. Navigating through country roads. But one extra feature of J.D. Scholten and his father Jim’s tour around Iowa in their new RV is that J.D. is also running for Congress.
As Scholten was entering the final months of Democrats’ three-way primary to take on Steve King, he faced a difficult problem: Iowa’s 4th Congressional District is a sprawling, 39-county swath of Western and Northern Iowa. Scholten leads the pack of Democrats vying for the nomination in fundraising by a good margin, but the district is split into six media markets, making advertising on TV difficult for this stage in the race. Grabbing voters’ attention while there’s a big primary for governor happening at the same time isn’t easy, either.
So, Scholten started started scouring the internet for an RV that his campaign could use to stump across the district and create some buzz with. When he came across the classic-looking Winnebago Brave 26A model, he knew he’d found the right one. They tracked one down in Arkansas that they could get a deal on, though Scholten notes it was likely built in the district at the Winnebago factory in Forest City (his mother grew up a few miles down the road in Lake Mills).
But it still needed a name, so Scholten christened it the Sioux City Sue after the song about his hometown.
“When you go to elementary school in Sioux City, you have to learn the song,” Scholten explains, adding that they were thinking of licensing the rights to it for a commercial.
The campaign wrapped the RV with their slogan and hit the road. Sometimes Scholten goes by himself and sometimes his father or a staffer joins him. It took a few days for Scholten and his father to get used to driving it, but the roving office has its perks. When Starting Line hopped on the Sioux City Sue for a day with the campaign last week, Scholten and his father had just overnighted in it, avoiding the cost of a hotel room (though they had to relocate from a park after a heavy rain threatened to get the RV stuck in the mud).
“This is going to pay for itself,” Scholten says. “And I’m keeping the ethanol industry alive and well.”
That much is certainly true. It cost more than $70 to fill up a third of the tank at one stop.
When they roll in to their first event of the four-stop day in Charles City, locals stop to snap a photo of the RV parked near the town’s main coffee shop. More than 30 people, including State Representative Todd Prichard, gather to meet Scholten. The candidate moves from table to table to give his quick campaign pitch. As is often the case in small towns, all the older and middle-aged women hang out at one table while the men are all at another. It’s mostly an older crowd, but that’s largely who votes in Iowa Democratic primaries.
While Scholten talks a bit about his background – he’s a baseball player who returned home to Iowa to take care of the family farm after his grandmother passed away – his main message is electability. Scholten says he’s the Democrat who can finally defeat Steve King. He’s explains that he’s raised more money (a half million and counting), has visited more counties, runs the biggest campaign operation and he’s even gotten financial support from Republicans.
“My goal is not to out-raise him, my goal is to compete,” Scholten tells one table of people, though he’s actually topped King’s fundraising totals now twice in a row. He also talks about how his campaign just put 40 yard signs up in the very deep-red Northwest Iowa town of Larchwood in Lyon County.
And that turns out to be a pretty popular idea for the long-suffering Democrats living in King country.
“I’d vote for anybody who can beat King,” one man tells him at the end of the Charles City event.
“I don’t know much about him, but he’s got my vote,” a woman told Prichard on her way out of the event. “If he can beat Steve King, I’m all for him.”
Another man at the coffee shop complains that King’s district (which used to be contained to just Western Iowa before redistricting) stretches all the way over to Floyd County these days, adding that King never comes by anyway. And indeed, Scholten’s next stop is far to the east in Chickasaw County, just two counties away from the Mississippi River. That’s a four-and-a-half hour drive from Sioux City for just a straight shot to it.
Between events, Scholten confers with his campaign team over the phone while in the passenger seat. He has a staff of nine at this point, the largest of any congressional campaign in any of Iowa’s four districts. They have field teams in Ames, Mason City and Sioux City.
Once that’s done, he and his father mostly chat baseball. Jim was the head baseball coach at Morningside College in Sioux City where J.D. attended before playing for teams around the country and world, though he never made it to the majors. In a fun bit of Iowa politics connections, Jim once played against Eddie Mauro, another Democratic candidate and coach in Iowa’s 3rd District, while J.D. once competed against Mauro-coached teams.
“Hey dad, you know where you’re going?” Scholten asks as they head down an empty rural highway.
“Oh yeah,” he replies.
Only two people are waiting for them at a cavernous restaurant event room at their next stop in New Hampton, a town of 3,400. That happens more often on even the biggest campaigns than most realize, though a dozen more people end up arriving by the time Scholten starts talking.
“So that’s what you mean by saying ‘standing tall for all,'” one woman jokes about his campaign slogan, raising her hand up to Scholten’s head (he’s six feet, six inches tall).
Here he encounters some pushback from local Democrats on some of his issue stances. Scholten’s policy positions certainly fall on the left side of the party – he’s for a $15/hour minimum wage and a Medicare-for-all healthcare system – and the party’s progressive activists helped fuel his initial efforts. But this is still a conservative, rural district, and even some of the hardcore Democratic activists realize how big a lift it is to convince swing voters on some of these policies.
“I think you got to be flexible on this,” warns one older man who worries his neighbors will see Medicare-for-all as some sort of “socialist” system.
Scholten understands all this. And while he’s staked out some very progressive views, he knows how to talk about it with skeptical audiences and when he should push harder on a topic and when it’s better to agree and move on.
“There’s a lot of ways to get to that solution, but we can absolutely afford to have universal healthcare,” he assures the crowd.
He also doesn’t typically lead with those issues, nor is he naive about the limitations of the left’s messaging in rural areas.
“If Democrats just talk about CAFOs, we’re going to continue to lose the farmer and rural vote,” Scholten explains to Starting Line. “It’s so narrow. Some CAFOs are actually okay. The ones that are ruining the environment? No. The ones that are massive and the money goes out of state? No. But some of these farmers, they have to do this to survive. Those are the people we have to be talking to … The master matrix is messed up, but we have to be more than just that.”
Instead, Scholten prefers to discuss ideas that can improve farmers’ profits with what they’re growing.
“We need to be talking about raising the value of our products,” he says of farm commodities, rattling off a couple ideas on how to expand uses for Iowa crops.
And that was the initial appeal of Scholten’s candidacy in the first place. A baseball guy from Sioux City who wasn’t heavily involved in politics before, the idea being that he could connect with voters who might otherwise dismiss a Democrat.
“My friends told me I could be a bridge,” he says.
To connect with those folks, he’s already gone to where they’re at.
“I pride myself in going to bars,” Scholten says, though he notes he always leaves before 9:00 P.M. “Talking to the guy next to me, and you know what, a lot of them have voted for King before, but you hear the same thing: frustrated with what’s happening in D.C., frustrated with career politicians, voted for King in the past but they’re ready for a fresh face. And if they’re not having it, at least I can talk baseball.”
And again in New Hampton, that electability pitch seems to matter more than any ideological differences to these likely primary voters. For Democrats in the 4th District, their overriding desire is to simply beat King.
“Winning is what matters,” another man there says as Scholten wraps up. “Maybe we’ve finally got somebody who’s going to get him out.”
Before heading to their next stop, Scholten and his father sit down for a brief lunch.
“J.D. eats healthier than me, so we order things we can split,” Jim notes as they share a salad and a meatloaf entree. To keep Scholten in shape on the campaign trail, Jim will sometimes drop his son off three miles outside of their next event so Scholten can get a run in.
Their next meeting is at a gas station in Grundy County just off of Highway 20, about halfway between Cedar Falls and Iowa Falls. Tracy Freese, who is running for the Iowa Senate, has helped in bringing out close to 20 people to the rest stop Arby’s to see Scholten. Many down-ballot Democrats like Freese are closely watching the 4th District primary, as enthusiasm for each year’s fight against King can help boost turnout for all the candidates on the ticket.
Here Scholten listens as several attendees explain their struggles with the state’s Medicaid system and mental healthcare access. And then, of course, everyone again talks about how they can’t stand King.
The anger and frustration with Iowa’s nationally-known, always-controversial congressman brings lots of eyes to the 4th District race every year. And every year, Democrats fail to come close to knocking off King. But Scholten insists this year could finally be the one that’s different. His argument to the primary-going crowd is that he’s the best-prepared to take on the incumbent.
“We’re not pressing start on June 6, we’re pressing launch,” he says, explaining they have lots of events and further fundraising plans immediately after the primary. “Who has the infrastructure that can not only take on, but potentially beat Steve King?”
And for that general election, he’s encouraging national groups and donors to invest in a way they haven’t before if they really think this will be a banner year for Democrats.
“If you just want a blue wave, continue what you’re going to do: invest in the 1st District and Des Moines,” Scholten says of the two congressional races seen as the most competitive. “I’m not counting on a blue wave whatsoever. I’m trying to run my campaign independently of a lot of different things. But if you want a blue tsunami, you invest in races like mine that are just out of reach, because we’re going to get a couple of them.”
To get there, he still needs to come out victorious on Tuesday night. Though he’s received the support of many of the party activists throughout the 4th District, a win isn’t assured. Leann Jacobsen, a Democrat from Spencer, has advertised her campaign well to primary-going Democrats and many voters are looking to elect more women this year. Dr. John Paschen of Ames has run on his healthcare background and comes from Story County, which always turns out big in primaries.
But if Scholten is successful, he’ll give Democrats a different type of candidacy to test out against King. He’ll almost certainly get quite a few 2020 presidential hopefuls riding along in his RV. National reporters will likely jump at the chance to fly out and see his mobile campaign office first hand for their “Heartland” politics stories (some already have). And if everything goes just right, and the blue wave turns into a blue tsunami, Scholten may drive the Sioux City Sue straight to Washington, D.C. after November.
by Pat Rynard