DAYTON, Iowa — This isn’t J.D. Scholten’s first rodeo.
Not the Dayton Rodeo, where Scholten is watching men wrestle calves, children ride sheep, and a one-armed cowboy wrangle a zebra with a whip. He’s campaigning for a second time against Rep Steve King and his bigoted rhetoric in Iowa’s 4rth Congressional District.
Back in 2018, Scholten surprised the Democratic party by coming within 10,500 votes of knocking off King. But this time around he’s not the only one coming for King. Republicans have had enough too, and if one of the three declared primary opponents catch King first, Scholten will have lost his bete noire, the main reason he stands a chance in the first place in a district with tens of thousands more registered Republicans than Democrats.
So Scholten is, in a sense, playing in two arenas. Sure, he’s the progressive hero who challenged one of the most reviled politicians in the country with almost no national party support and nearly flipped a district that hasn’t been won by a Democrat in more than 20 years. But he also wants voters in his district to know that he’s no firebrand and that Democrats can once again be the party of rural America.
So when King says something controversial or downright racist — like civilization wouldn’t be the same without rape and incest or undocumented immigrants are influencing American election — Scholten will of course respond on social media, hoping to sneak his name into a viral moment. But day to day on the ground, it’s not what he spends his time talking about.
“It’s easy for me to go around saying, ‘Steve King said this, Steve King said this, Steve King said this,’” Scholten said. “But at the same time, that’s not going to improve these people’s lives.”
The other big unknown is how having President Donald Trump on the ballot this time will affect the race. One the one hand, he remains incredibly popular among Republicans and could drive up GOP turnout. On the other hand, his unpopularity on the other side could drive turnout for Democrats. In Iowa, his trade war with China has particularly hurt soy bean farmers and waivers allowing oil refineries to ignore rules to blend ethanol with their fuel have angered corn farmers.
That’s why Scholten said he hopes to draw more support from the agriculture community this time around. He wants to bring back the archetype of the rural Democrat, which he thinks has been largely missing from the national stage since Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin retired in 2015.
That includes a more moderation than is usually accepted from a liberal hero. As a Catholic, he is personally opposed to abortion, but doesn’t believe it should be banned. He has expressed support for 2nd Amendment gun rights, but with limits to keep guns out of potential mass murderers’ hands. He agrees with the fight for universal health care coverage and a Green New Deal-style social and economic reforms, but concedes Democrats have work to do to sell policies like those in a district like this.
“There’s the caricature of what a Democrat is, and then there’s what I’m trying to do.”
“There’s the caricature of what a Democrat is, and then there’s what I’m trying to do,” he said. “When I go talk to a lot of these folks, within a few minutes, you'll hear Socialism, AOC and [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi. And I'm trying to run on who I am, not what the national party is.”
Life has changed drastically for Scholten, 39, since the last race. Back then, he couldn’t even get the Democrats’ national campaign arm to return his calls. Now, presidential candidates send fundraising emails for him. Back then, most people couldn’t pick the 6-foot-6, cue-ball bald former minor-league baseball pitcher out in a crowd.
“Having to get people to remember your name was hard, but now,” he said, “Like, even at my gym, there's several times in the locker room in the last week and a half, somebody has stopped me while I'm in a towel.”
On Saturday, Scholten was wearing plastic gloves as he manned the concession stand at the edge of the rodeo arena, preparing ball park franks, stadium nachos and the crowd favorite, walking tacos, a bag of Doritos sliced open and filled with chili and taco meat.
Paul Erickson, a lanky cowboy who works as the program director for the rodeo, popped his Stetson-topped head into the wooden concession shed to exchange information and to thank Scholten for taking on King.
“It’s just crazy. So embarrassing,” Erickson said of King. “I know that if he had one more, two more weeks last time, I think he'd have beat him out.”
So the story goes, according to Scholten’s supporters. He caught fire late in the campaign following a string of King’s highly scrutinized comments and actions allying himself with white nationalists and the far right. Scholten bought as many TV ads as he could in the final stretch, but ran out of time to break through.
Tyler Johnson, who was wearing a Scholten for Congress T-shirt and volunteering at the rodeo alongside the candidate, believes the longer runway can help Scholten this time — that is, unless another Republican beats King first. Already, State Sen. Randy Feenstra has outraised King, and two other Republicans are running in the primary, as well.
“I think it'd be a further uphill battle because most of the people that I've talked to canvassing around here close their eyes and circle an R," Johnson said. "I could see it being morally easier to just vote for another Republican rather than to close your eyes and hold your nose and circle Steve King.”
At this rodeo you can see where King may draw some of his support. While there is little in the way of overtly political gear, political correctness is definitely not in fashion. Confederate flags adorn clothes. One man is wearing a shirt with an image of a rifle-caliber bullet surrounded by the words, “Just the tip, I promise.”
“He's said some things that are controversial,” Dayton Mayor Brent Brunner, a political Independent, explained of King. “But I think the people look at what he's done, and they're still comfortable with him.”
Still, the area is not as solidly Republican as this crowd may make it seem. The Congressional district went for President Barack Obama twice, then swung for President Donald Trump in 2016, all the while sending King back to Congress. Scholten narrowly won Webster County, which includes Dayton, in 2018.
“It just goes to show when you work your tail off and you don't write anybody off, you show up at events like this, you can earn votes. And I know there's more out there that we can get too,” Scholten said.
Cover: J.D. Scholten, running for congress in Iowa's 4rth Congressional District against Steve King, waves to supporters outside the Wing Ding Dinner on August 9, 2019 in Clear Lake, Iowa. (Photo: ALEX EDELMAN/AFP/Getty Images)