SIOUX CITY -- For 16 years, Rep. Steve King has mostly cruised to re-election in his U.S. House district, mining votes from Republicans who dominate in the huge swath of largely rural Northwest and Northcentral Iowa.
As the Nov. 6 election approaches, King's Democratic challenger, J.D. Scholten, is not shrinking from the challenge and insists he can halt King's long winning streak.
King, of rural Kiron, won his first House term in 2002. Since then, he's faced few serious challenges, scoring big wins while espousing conservative stances on social and fiscal issues.
His closest scare came in 2012 when he outdistanced Christie Vilsack, the wife of a former Iowa governor, 53 percent to 45 percent, in the then-newly drawn 4th District.
Scholten, 38, has taken a methodical approach by working through the 39-county district, which stretches from Sioux City east to Mason City and from the Minnesota border south to Ames. On Thursday, Scholten completed a tour that took him through each county for a third time.
After months of campaigning, Scholten believes he has whipped up a winning recipe -- hearing people out in town hall meetings, the most campaign cash of the two candidates, a boost of buzz from events held with political figures such as Bernie Sanders and, he asserts, voter fatigue with King, in a time when economic tariffs are concerning Iowa farmers.
"I understand how people have voted in the past, I get it," Scholten said, while adding that that doesn't mean an ineffective King should keep being re-elected simply because he is a Republican.
An Emerson College Poll in early September showed King with a 10-point lead, polling at 41 percent. Scholten's own poll a short time later showed him within six points. But King's camp on Friday cited their own more recent internal poll showed the congressman up by 20 points.
The 4th District is the most Republican of Iowa's four congressional district, with 190,274 registered Republicans, compared to 120,023 registered Democrats. Another 172,404 voters list no party, and 2,362 are registered as Libertarians, according to the most recent data.
A Libertarian candidate, Charles Aldrich, of Clarion, is also on the Nov. 6 ballot.
University of Northern Iowa political science professor Christopher Larimer said he's not seen anything in terms of policy stances that would lead large swaths of Republicans to abandon King this year.
"If anything, the intensification of partisanship, and increasing shift toward what political scientists call negative partisanship -- the tendency to identify with a party based on dislike of the other party rather than agreement on policy -- would seem to work in Congressman King's favor," Larimer said.
Scholten claims this election will be different, saying voters are increasingly upset with King's frequent travels overseas, support for right-wing politicians from other nations and inappropriate comments.
Ten days ago, for example, King raised eyebrows with his endorsement of Faith Goldy, a white nationalist candidate for mayor of Toronto. King cited Goldy's positions on crime, immigration and fighting to preserve Western Civilization.
In 2017, King declared that diversity is not an American strength and endorsed another European leader's view that "mixing cultures" leads to a lower quality of life.
Scholten claims King's controversial comments on immigration and other topics are a road too far.
"That all disgusts me, on two different levels," Scholten said. "It is disgraceful, it is not part of the Christian tradition that I was brought up on. And then, that is what (King) is known for and we don't hear about the things we should be addressing in the district."
King said he recognizes that Judeo-Christian traditions laid the foundation for Western Civilization, and free-enterprise economics have resulted in centuries of growth.
LONG-TIME, FIRST-TIME CANDIDATES
King is undefeated in elections, starting with upsetting a 24-year veteran of the Iowa Legislature in a GOP primary for a state Senate seat in 1996. After emerging from a crowded field of candidates in the Republican primary, he won his first congressional term in 2002.
King, 69, said people who criticize him don't know or understand him. He said his values have shown through being married 46 years to his wife Marilyn. The couple raised three sons as King built a successful earth moving company in Kiron. In 2003, his son, Dave, purchased the business. Another son, Jeff, serves as King's campaign manager.
Those who know him, Steve King said, "know that I have been representing their values...They know I am a full-spectrum conservative."
Scholten moved to Sioux City with his family at age 3. He played baseball for his father at Morningside College and then transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for his senior year. After college, he played for the Sioux City Explorers and professional clubs in Canada, Belgium, France and Cuba.
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Scholten then veered to work as a paralegal in the Minneapolis and Seattle areas. He returned to Sioux City after the 2016 election, after his grandmother urged him to come home to watch over her family's farm in Lake Mills and his thoughts turned to running for political office.
In the June primary, Scholten defeated two opponents to capture the Democratic nomination.
King, who has never been a strong fundraiser, has collected contributions totaling just over $670,000 during the 2017-18 campaign cycle. Scholten, meanwhile, has amassed $1.42 million.
The challenger raised $661,013 in the three-month period ended Sept. 30, or four times the $161,673 amount King collected during the quarter. Scholten notes his fundraising haul for the quarter was the most for a King challenger other than Christie Vilsack.
Scholten said he's grown into his campaign over more than a year. His first paid staffer worked in communications, which meant a lot of outreach through social media on messaging, to the point that Scholten's official Twitter account has 92,000 followers, up from the 84,000 two weeks ago. He's ramped up staff, and drives a huge campaign bus to draw attention.
The subsequent You Can't Fake Showing Up tour title wryly points to Scholten's criticism that King does not typically announce his meetings, publicly.
King said he hasn't held town hall public meetings, because rabblerousers often come to stage protests at the events.
"I am not just going to play into those hands...I don't think it is wise or constructive," he said.
King said people who dismiss his failure to hold town hall meetings overlook how many other types of stops he makes.
"I do meetings all over this district," he said, citing visits to businesses and other places.
In September, King hosted members of a Taiwanese agricultural delegation on a tour of a Plymouth County farm. King is a member of the House Agriculture Committee and he said the tour followed an important announcement that the nation of Taiwan will increase its purchase of American soybeans by 30 percent.
However, Scholten said, "There are a lot of farmers who are frustrated, and King is weak on agriculture."
Scholten said the Trump administration's trade policies are taking a toll in the largely rural 4th District.
"We are bearing the brunt of these tariffs," he said, adding that established farmers can likely make it through 2018, but, "2019 looks extremely scary if we don't resolve this right now."
King acknowledged the retaliatory Chinese tariffs tariffs on soybeans and pork threaten to harm many young farmers in the 4th District. The Republican congressman pointed out he was not in favor of Trump's decision to start a trade war with the Asian nation.
But King warned it wouldn't make sense for the U.S. to "surrender" in its trade talks with the Asian nation. He said tariffs on Chinese imports are putting pressure on China to ratchet down its theft of U.S. intellectual property, which is estimated at more than $5 billion annually.
Speaking on how tariffs may factor into the Iowa 4th race, professor Larimer said, "Tariffs have the potential to affect voters, as pocketbook issues have been thought to move voters in the past. But it seems partisanship now overrides everything, and the effects of the tariffs may have not had time to fully set in."
HEALTH CARE, IMMIGRATION
Scholten said the three top issues he talks about are the health care, the economy and reducing the role of special interest groups in politics. Scholten accepts no campaign contributions from corporate-affiliated political action committees.
On health care, he said, "my long-term vision is Medicare for all," all ages, everyone.
King said Republican control of all facets of government in 2017-18 have proven beneficial.
"We have tax cuts and we have deregulation, and we have a much, much stronger foreign policy that is moving in the right direction in a significant way. Our military is being restored," King said.
King's top issues include many of those same subjects, plus strong enforcement of immigration laws, including building a wall at the Mexican border. He cited how he managed on the U.S. House floor not one but four immigration-related bills that were passed out of the chamber. Those bills have not been fully enacted or sent to the president.
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