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Steve King, J.D. Scholten named Journal's 2018 Newsmakers of Year

SIOUX CITY -- The 2018 election went much differently for U.S. Rep. Steve King, as he vied with a first-time candidate who gained national stature as November approached.

King, a Republican from Kiron, handily won eight terms in years when the Northwest Iowa congressional districts had 50,000 to 70,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. For years, Democrats who sought to defeat the conservative King pointed to being able to turn Republicans from King, while bringing independent voters into the fold.

In 2018, as King sought his ninth term, that playbook almost worked. J.D. Scholten, a Democrat from Sioux City, methodically worked through the 39 counties of the 4th District and raised $3.2 million for his campaign over the cycle, which swamped the $865,566 amount King raised.

Scholten, who played professional baseball and has worked as a paralegal, fell just short of pulling off one of the biggest national upsets of the midterms. When the ballots were counted, King won by 3 percent, or 10,430 votes.

Given their high-profile competition, the Journal has named Scholten and King the 2018 Newsmakers of the Year.

King said the campaign proceeded like a normal re-election for him. Then a deluge of political attacks emerged, in which King was asked to defend his remarks on race and support for political candidates and parties with ties to white supremacy.

"That was the nastiest, most dishonest political gauntlet that any Iowan has been put through, in the last month, the last two to three weeks," King said in a December interview. "I have tremendous appreciation for all of the Iowans who didn't take the bait, in spite of it being a manufactured, nearly perfect storm."

For his part, Scholten said he enjoyed his first run for political office, and that some of King's problems were a result of his controversial stances and statements were coming home to roost.

In 2016, King won by 23 percentage points over Kim Weaver, a Democrat from Sheldon. His prior closest re-election contest came in 2012 when he beat Christie Vilsack, wife of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, 53 percent to 45 percent.

Scholten said he was "disappointed with the outcome of the election," but added it was gratifying to see people responding to his campaign, which he said delivered a positive message on ways to improve the lives of Iowans.

King said a group of national media members, including the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Weekly Standard, NBC and Reuters, "coordinated" in the summer to gang up on him and other conservative Republicans, producing a series of articles that sought to sink his credibility.

Scholten addressed the national stories that surfaced about King's statements.

"It wasn't coming from my campaign. I hardly talked about (King). I barely mentioned him in my town halls," Scholten said.

King's comments this month showed he still harbors resentment against Steve Stivers, a congressman who heads the House Republicans campaign committee. News reports surfaced in September and October about a trip King took to Austria and his meeting there with members of the Freedom Party, which is associated with a man once active in neo-Nazi circles.

In an October tweet, Stivers condemned King for "completely inappropriate," actions and remarks: "We must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms."

"Everything was water off a duck's back until then," King said, referencing Stivers' public rebuke of him.

Stivers also said the National Republican Congressional Committee would not provide money to King's campaign.

King said, "That was a lie, because there was never going to be any money (to King from the NRCC)."

King said in spite of the bitter election tone, he looks back on the year with fondness on some legislative successes. He pointed to the federal agricultural Farm Bill being passed in December.

Most pleasing, King cited his distinct work over nearly two months to push Iowa state legislators to adopt an abortion-related bill. That bill passed and was signed into law, and prohibits physicians from performing an abortion in Iowa if a heartbeat is detected in the fetus.

"That is a pretty big accomplishment...I am convinced we saved lives this year," King said.

Scholten attracted national attention and hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-state campaign contributions in the last weeks of the campaign, while some political action committees ran ads against King. 

"It was exciting and it was a whirlwind," Scholten said, adding the late influx of support "was frustrating," because for months "I was saying this race would come down to the wire."

He won six counties, including the five most populous: Woodbury, Cerro Gordo, Story, Webster and Boone.

Scholten said it was notable to win his home county of Woodbury by nearly 3,000 votes, 53 percent to 44 percent. It was the first time King had lost the congressional district's most populous county.

Even in many of the bright red counties King won, his support fell sharply from previous elections. In heavily Republican Sioux and Lyon counties, King got 73.3 percent and 71.9 percent, respectively, but that was down from his 2016 totals in those counties of 83.5 and 82.2, percent respectively.

King also ran behind Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds in many 4th District counties. "We outperformed the top of the ticket by 14 percent," Scholten said.

After conceding to King in November, Scholten noted his Democratic heroes, former Iowa Congressman Berkley Bedell and  U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, both lost their first elections.

"You haven't seen the last of J.D. Scholten," he tweeted.

Now, he said he knows people want him to run against King again in 2020.

"I am keeping it open. I am keeping it in my mind," Scholten said, while adding that he can still help Iowans without holding elective office.

He is aiming toward a January decision that could result in creating a nonprofit organization to advance technology throughout Iowa.

As Scholten mulls that, he said, "I am 100 percent staying in Sioux City," then added with a laugh, "I am ridiculously busy for being unemployed."

Given his win, King remains employed by the voters. The 116th Congress is slated to convene on Jan. 3, amid a period when a partial government shutdown has been underway since Dec. 22.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Midlands Clinic has donated to the Journal's Goodfellows charity. Physicians shown at the Dakota Dunes practice are, seated from left, Mark Abraham, Paul Johnson, Michelle Daffer, Craig Nemechek and Sarah Bligh. Standing from left, JD Welander, Larry Volz, Jeffrey Michalak, Keith Vollstedt and Indy Chabra.

Trump blames Dems for migrant children's deaths

President Donald Trump sought to deflect blame for the deaths of two Guatemalan children in U.S. custody by claiming they were "very sick" when they arrived, even though immigration authorities have said both children passed initial health checks.

The mother of the boy who died Christmas Eve told The Associated Press on Saturday that her son was healthy when he left with his father on their journey hoping to migrate to the U.S.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen visited Border Patrol agents and medical officials at the southern border amid promises of more thorough health screenings for migrant children.

Trump, whose administration has faced widespread criticism over the deaths, pointed on Twitter at Democrats "and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally."

He also said that both children "were very sick before they were given over to Border Patrol."

The two tweets were his first comments on the Dec. 8 death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal and the death on Christmas Eve of 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo.

Felipe's mother, Catarina Alonzo, told the AP that her son reported he was doing well every time that he and his father called home during their trek. She spoke with AP journalists at the family's home in the remote Guatemalan village of Yalambojoch, her stepdaughter Catarina Gomez translating her indigenous language Chuj into Spanish.

"When he called me, he told me he was fine. He told me not to worry because he was fine," Catarina Alonzo said.

The mother said the last time she spoke with Felipe he was in Mexico at the U.S. border and said he was eating chicken.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has issued detailed statements about both children's deaths.

An initial screening of Jakelin "revealed no evidence of health issues," CBP said on Dec. 14. It wasn't until several hours later that Jakelin's father, Nery Caal, told agents that she was "sick and vomiting," CBP said. Attorneys for the Caal family also denied claims that Nery "hadn't given her water in days," as Trump wrote.

And CBP said Tuesday that agents logged 23 welfare checks of Felipe and his father in the first several days the two were detained. Felipe's father, Agustin Gomez, told a Guatemalan official that the boy first showed signs of illness Monday morning, the day he died.

Despite Trump's claim that Democrats were responsible for "pathetic" immigration policies, at least one of the laws his administration has blamed — legislation that prevents the immediate deportation of unaccompanied children from Central American countries — was signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush, a Republican.

Democrats criticized the president's tweets. "You slander Jakelin's memory and re-traumatize her family by spreading lies about why she died," said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas.

The president's comments came Saturday afternoon, the same day Nielsen was in Yuma, Arizona, to meet with medical staff at the border. Nielsen said in a statement that "the system is clearly overwhelmed and we must work together to address this humanitarian crisis." She called on Congress to "act with urgency."

Her office said she was briefed Friday in El Paso, Texas, on "recently instituted secondary medical screenings and the more thorough initial health screenings of migrants."

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he met with Nielsen and told CNN on Saturday that he agreed with her that the immigration policy is "broken."

"El Paso is dealing with the symptoms as a result of the lack of fortitude in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, to deal with our immigration policy," the Republican said.

Felipe and Agustin Gomez were apprehended by border agents Dec. 18 near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso to Juarez, Mexico, according to border officials. The two were detained at the bridge's processing center and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso, until being taken at about 1 a.m. Sunday to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles away.

After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, father and son were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was diagnosed with a common cold and found to have a fever of 103 degrees Fahrenheit, officials have said.

Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to CBP, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen. But the boy fell sick hours later Monday and was re-admitted to the hospital. He died just before midnight.

New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said this week that prior to this month, no child had died in their custody in more than a decade.

On Friday, Trump threatened via Twitter to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in Central America's so-called Northern Triangle region. He has made similar threats in the past without following through.

Short on solutions, long on blame in 2nd shutdown weekend

WASHINGTON — Cooped up in the White House after canceling a vacation to his private Florida club, President Donald Trump fired Twitter barbs at Democrats on Saturday as talks to end a weeklong partial government shutdown remained at a stalemate.

As the disruption in federal services and public employees' pay appeared set to continue into the new year, there were no signs of any substantive negotiation between the blame-trading parties. Trump held out for billions in federal funds for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, which Democrats have said they were intent on blocking.

Trump tweeted Saturday that he was "in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal on Border Security." But there has been little direct contact between the sides during the stalemate, and Trump did not ask Republicans, who hold a monopoly on power in Washington for another five days, to keep Congress in session.

Trump earlier had upped the brinkmanship by threatening anew to close the border with Mexico to press Congress to cave to his demand for money to pay for a wall. Democrats are vowing to pass legislation restoring the government as soon as they take control of the House on Thursday, but that won't accomplish anything unless Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate go along with it.

Talks have been at a stalemate for more than a week, after Democrats said the White House offered to accept $2.5 billion for border security last Saturday. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told Vice President Mike Pence that it wasn't acceptable, nor was it guaranteed that Trump, under intense pressure from his conservative base to fulfill his signature campaign promise, would settle for that amount.

Trump has remained out of the public eye since returning to the White House early Thursday from a 29-hour visit to U.S. troops in Iraq, instead taking to Twitter to attack Democrats. He also moved to defend himself from criticism that he couldn't deliver on the wall while the GOP controlled both the House and Senate.

"For those that naively ask why didn't the Republicans get approval to build the Wall over the last year, it is because IN THE SENATE WE NEED 10 DEMOCRAT VOTES, and they will gives us "NONE" for Border Security!," he tweeted. "Now we have to do it the hard way, with a Shutdown."

Meanwhile, the effects of the impasse on the public grew as the Environmental Protection Agency, which had the money to function a week longer than some agencies, implemented its shutdown plan at midnight Friday night. EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said many of the agency's 14,000 employees were being furloughed, while disaster-response teams and certain other employees deemed essential would stay on the job. That includes workers needed for preventing immediate public health threats at more than 800 Superfund hazardous-waste sites.

Also running short on money: the Smithsonian Institution, which said its museums, art galleries and zoo in the capital will close starting midweek if the partial shutdown drags on.

Trump appeared no closer to securing money for his signature border wall, which he vowed during the campaign that he would make Mexico pay for. He's failed to do so. Now Democratic leaders are adamant that they will not authorize money for the project, calling it wasteful and ineffective. They show no signs of bending, either.

The shutdown is forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors to stay home or work without pay.

The White House has not directly engaged in weeks with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who has all but locked up the support she needs to win the speaker's gavel after the new Congress convenes on Thursday.

Pelosi has vowed to pass legislation to reopen the nine shuttered departments and dozens of agencies now hit by the partial shutdown as soon as she takes the gavel.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill added that Democrats are united against the wall and won't seriously consider any White House offer unless Trump backs it publicly because he "has changed his position so many times."