Last year, when Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, took to Twitter to declare his support for ethnic nationalism, writing, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” J.D. Scholten’s friends from out of state bombarded him with questions.
“Is this where you’re from?” they asked. “Is this you?”
The former minor league pitcher didn’t know how to respond. “I would love to say, ‘That doesn’t represent us,’ but ‘representative’ is his job title,” he said.
Scholten, 38, is the Democrat trying to wrest that title from King, who has been engulfed in controversy this week over his racially incendiary rhetoric, as the nation remains on high alert following the massacre on Saturday of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report has moved the race for Iowa’s 4th congressional District, which lies in the northwest quadrant of the state, from “Likely” to “Lean” Republican.
King has compared immigrants to dogs and said young migrants had “calves the size of cantaloupes” because they were transporting heavy loads of marijuana. He tweeted a cartoon depicting former President Barack Obama wearing a turban. His party didn’t rebuke him in June when he retweeted a message from a self-described “Nazi sympathizer.” Last month, he voiced support for Faith Goldy, an unsuccessful Toronto mayoral candidate who has promoted the notion that a “white genocide” is underway. And last week, reports surfaced that King had met in August with members of an Austrian political party founded by former Nazis, during a trip funded by a group that promotes awareness of the Holocaust.
“I don’t know really how to define it other than selfish,” Scholten said in an interview with The Washington Post, when asked how he would describe the conduct of his opponent.
The Democratic candidate pointedly refrained from calling King a “racist” or a “white nationalist” — terms that others, and not just Democrats, have used, opening the door for Scholten to pounce. Instead, he framed his opponent’s association with far-right figures abroad and his inflammatory statements at home as an abdication of leadership, noting that King wasn’t named to the cross-chamber committee hashing out the terms of the farm bill, which is critical to a district where agriculture is king.
“I don’t get into name-calling,” he said. “I’m absolutely disgusted with a lot of what he stands for, but I didn’t run for Congress to call him anything. It’s not my place to do it. I’ll let the voters decide on what’s appropriate and not appropriate. I’m not the one who defines what a racist is.”
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His restraint points to a different tack in a campaign season convulsed by debates over identity — debates that have driven the two parties further apart. Examples abound. Georgia could elect the country’s first female, African American governor, who is a Democrat, or the Republican, who has pledged to “round up ‘illegals.’” The Republican candidate for Senate in Arizona said her opponent, who is bisexual, supported “treason” because of comments she had made about war in the Middle East. In Vermont, Democrats made Christine Hallquist the country’s first openly transgender major-party nominee for governor, as the Trump administration considers narrowly defining gender as linked to biological sex.
The divisions are stark, and some Democrats have tried to use them to their advantage. “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist,” concluded Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, during a heated debate last month, referring to a record of statements dogging his Republican opponent, Rep. Ron DeSantis.
Scholten — who, unlike Gillum, is white — said he doesn’t feel the need to level such a blunt accusation.
“It’s not that I’m uncomfortable. I believe the district needs new, moral leadership from someone who unequivocally rejects white nationalism and racism,” he said. “I feel things are clear. It doesn’t matter what I say one way or the other. He is who he is. It speaks for itself.”
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Republican campaign arm, on Tuesday assailed King for “white supremacy and hate,” and the fundraising group he heads said it wouldn’t “play” in King’s race. Land O’Lakes, the dairy giant, pulled its financial support the same day, citing the “company’s values.”
And on Wednesday, another fellow Republican, Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, said on MSNBC that he would never vote for “someone like Steve King,” even if it meant forfeiting control of the House, calling his colleague’s statements and actions “disgusting.” The same day, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, called on House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to censure King for statements and affiliations “that are anti-Semitic and offensive not just to the Jewish community, but to all Americans.” Ryan did not do so.
The harsh reproach enforced a degree of accountability for King. But his hard-line views on race and cultural identity have moved further into the mainstream during the presidency of Donald Trump, who has aimed to make the final days of the midterm campaign about polarizing issues of immigration and national belonging. King, an eight-term congressman, parroted the president’s rhetoric in responding to the criticism, blaming the “fake news” and “Establishment Never Trumpers.”
A poll released Tuesday by Change Research, a Democratic firm, found that King had only a one-point lead over Scholten, a first-time candidate. David Wasserman, Cook’s House editor, called Scholten King’s “first credible challenger in six years.” He has massively outraised the incumbent, his campaign coffers lined by contributions from national donors — from Florida to Texas to Massachusetts — some of whom view King as a “white supremacist” and a “bigot.”
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Scholten has forcefully denounced King’s comments, and has called on Republicans to join him. But the lifelong Democrat, who has worked as a paralegal in Minneapolis and Seattle, is speaking to a specific audience. Since 2012, King has been reelected seven times in a district where voters favored Trump to Hillary Clinton roughly 2 to 1.
The candidate has left the sharper barbs to the American Values PAC, a group targeting King and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. One ad called King “Klan and neo-Nazi approved.”
That enables Scholten to present himself as a “healthy alternative,” as he described his campaign in a phone interview from the road north of Sioux City, the city of about 80,000 where he grew up.
He graduated from the University of Nebraska and pursued professional baseball, playing abroad as well as for his in hometown Sioux City Explorers. He stands 6-foot-6 but never made it to the major leagues.
In between seasons, Scholten began a career as a paralegal. But he moved home nearly two years ago, at the encouragement of his grandmother, who asked him to take over the family farm shortly before she died. When the farm passed to his mother’s generation, Scholten returned and purchased his family home from his parents. The best job he could find paid $15 an hour and came without benefits, so he created a position of his own, as a freelance paralegal.
Meanwhile, a candidate willing to take on King had yet to emerge. “That’s when I was like, ‘You know what, I cannot let Steve King just go without an opponent,’” he said. He announced his candidacy last summer.
Scholten said he has visited each of the district’s 39 counties at least three times. Residents, he said, weren’t worried about birthright citizenship, or about the migrant caravan heading toward the southern border. “Kitchen-table topics,” such as health care, were at the center of conversations. People in the district want border security, he said, but the area also has a labor shortage. A grain elevator recently needed 39 employees to help with the harvest, “and they didn’t get one American citizen to apply,” he said.
In a deep-red district, he is running as an outsider and a populist. He has the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as well as that of the Sioux City Journal, which has favored King in the past.
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“The average person in Congress is 58 years old, with a net worth of $1 million,” Scholten said in an ad from earlier this year. “Well, I’m different. I’m 20 years younger and just shy of $1 million short of that average.”
He dared viewers, “Tell me this race is unwinnable.”
National Democrats long saw it that way, he said. Before this week’s poll, King was recently shown to have anywhere from a six to a 20-point lead. “For the longest time, I’ve been trying to scream to say, ‘Hey, we’re on pace to beat this guy,’ and nobody was making much noise about it,” Scholten said.
He sees some signs of change. His campaign manager texted him Wednesday to say that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has faced criticism for discounting progressive candidates, had “responded with more than just a sentence this time,” Scholten said.