Iowa, J.D. Scholten says, is at a crossroads. Situated geographically between Nebraska and Wisconsin, the state’s politics can go one of two ways. For Democrats’ sake, “I’m hopeful that we go towards Wisconsin,” he said.
While Wisconsin is no liberal bastion, the state elected a Democratic governor two years ago and helped deliver the presidency this year to Joe Biden after favoring President Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats have proven in recent years they can win statewide in Wisconsin, a feat an Iowa Democrat at the top of the ticket has not accomplished since former Sen. Tom Harkin was reelected for a final time in 2008.
Nebraska, on the other hand, is solidly red. The state voted for Trump by 19 percentage points this year, has no Democrats in Congress and hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1990.
“I think it’s very important that we have candidates with strong messages of what the Democratic Party is and what they stand for. Will it be easy? No. But do we have a chance? Absolutely,” Scholten, the Democratic candidate in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, told Starting Line.
Sen. Zach Wahls, the Iowa Senate’s newly elected minority leader, strikes a similar tone.
“One of the things that’s ahead of us is really clearly defining what it means to be an Iowa Democrat,” Wahls, of Coralville, said.
In the wake of losses in the U.S. House and disappointing shortcomings in the GOP-controlled Senate, Scholten said “as a party we need to look ourselves in the mirror and really figure out what direction we want to go.”
“To me, it gets back to retail politics, basic organizing,” Scholten said. “I know with all this technology — and people love the latest polls and all that stuff — it all gets a little fancy. At the end of the day, it’s hard work and just people-to-people contact and connecting with folks. I feel that’s part of what was missed in this election.”
Scholten’s 24-point loss to Republican state Sen. Randy Feenstra was not for lack of effort, or even “people-to-people contact,” for that matter. Scholten visited all 394 towns in the 39-county district, held parking lot rallies, attended multiple forums and was more visible on the campaign trail than his opponent.
2020 “was a base election,” Scholten said. “And in a base election in the 4th District, I don’t have a chance.”
With 237,319 votes, Feenstra in his first run for Congress earned more votes than his predecessor, Republican Congressman Steve King, won in any of his nine general election cycles. (King’s highest vote total was 226,719 in 2016). A record-breaking 75.73% of registered votes in the 4th District cast ballots this year, a trend that played out statewide.
When Scholten ran for the seat two years ago, in an election cycle that brought 67 new Democrats to Congress — compared to 44 Republicans — he lost the conservative district by less than 4 percentage points.
“I was 100% shocked,” Scholten said of his crushing loss this year. “I knew there was potential … we needed a lot of things to break our way in order to win, but it was a complete shocker to me. We out-organized them. We out-raised them. We out-traveled them. We out-hustled them. We out-worked them in every facet of the campaign and we got blown out of the water. It was the top of the ticket and there’s nothing we could have done about it.”
Trump won Iowa again this year and he carried the 4th District with support from 63% of voters.
Despite the drubbing Western Iowa handed Scholten, he still carries an “organize everywhere” mentality and believes Democratic outreach in all counties is essential if the party hopes to win statewide again.
“One of the biggest things, I think to me is a no-brainer, is to have year-round organizing,” Scholten said. “If you look at all of these people who have been field organizers in the state of Iowa in the past couple of years, whether it’s for the presidential or for the IDP or what have you, there’s a lot of great people. They’re pretty crappy jobs. They’re short term, it’s stressful. Let’s make that a job that is desirable — decent pay, decent benefits, and let’s build the party that way. Maybe it’s not necessarily bringing in people from out of state … maybe it’s hiring local people … that’s what I would like to see.”
Despite the “huge messaging problem” Scholten sees at the national level for Democrats, he was “optimistic” about 2022 and the chance for Iowa Democrats to compete in statewide races at the gubernatorial and Senate level.
As for Scholten, “Running uphill is extremely difficult, and to do it back-to-back like that is pretty tiring and tiresome.”
The “passion” and “desire” Scholten has to compete in rural Iowa and strengthen Democrats’ presence there is still strong, he said, and “I think I’ve found a niche in this rural, Democratic space that I want to pursue.”
“I’m contemplating writing a book. We’ll see,” he said. “Right now I’m just getting my feet underneath me a bit and just trying to figure a few things out. Whether it’s being more of an activist or working on rural issues somewhere, I think that’s something that’s my passion. I have no idea what’s next. I don’t necessarily have to be a candidate to work on these issues, but we’ll just have to wait and see, I guess.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
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