J.D. Scholten on Steve King, Randy Feenstra, and What’s Next for Him

The Democrat who nearly dethroned King predicts a "big coup" against him among Republicans in 2020, discusses his thoughts on running again (or, maybe, challenging Joni Ernst), and teases an upcoming anti-poverty project.

4th Congressional District Democratic candidate J.D. Scholten speaks at London Underground in downtown Ames in 2017. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

In November, Democrat J.D. Scholten, a former professional baseball player and political newcomer from Sioux City, came within three and a half points of defeating Steve King in Iowa’s deep-red 4th District — far and away the closest any Democrat has come to unseating the congressman who’s become notorious for his ties to white nationalists and Europe’s far right.

Now, King already has a primary challenger in state Sen. Randy Feenstra, a Hull Republican who announced his campaign Wednesday in a statement that didn’t directly confront the congressman’s racist rhetoric but took aim at his “caustic nature” and ineffectiveness in Washington. At Bleeding Heartland, Laura Belin reported that Rick Sanders, the sole remaining Republican on the Story County Board of Supervisors (who avoiding criticizing King during the 2018 election) is also mulling a primary bid.

That made us wonder what Scholten, whom many hope will challenge King again in the 2020 general election, thought about the recent developments. We spoke with him over the phone Wednesday night; here’s what he had to say.

You saw the news, I assume, about Randy Feenstra?

It’s interesting that it happened so quick. I knew he was going to get primaried. All the things you’re hearing from Republicans from Des Moines and elsewhere, you’ve heard a lot of grumbling. I’m a little surprised with how quick it was.

It was very quick.

Yeah. So, Feenstra has 17 months [until the primary] and he’s from Sioux County. That’s a lot of time. I’m interested to see how the fundraising goes; I think will really set the tone on the viability that he has. I think it’s going to be a really interesting battle, because I don’t think King goes down without a fight.

There are some people who are predicting that King is not going to run again in 2020.

I have not seen that.

Do you think he’ll run again in 2020?

I assume he’s running again, and I assume so because he created this pamphlet — well, it’s more than a pamphlet, it’s almost like a newspaper — that he sent out to constituents that’s pretty massive. It’s a constituent survey thing. The survey part is tiny [laughs], and it’s all these things that he’s done and all this stuff about how great a congressman he’s supposed to be and all this stuff. To me, that shows he’s not done. He wouldn’t be doing that, and he wouldn’t be doing 39 counties, a town hall in all those counties. It’s going to be interesting.

I read that Gov. Reynolds won’t endorse him. It’s really interesting to see the Iowa Republican Party say that we don’t endorse in legitimate primaries. They already called it a legitimate primary. I don’t know, I’ve heard a lot of rumors and it seems to be true that there’s going to be a big coup against King.

I guess we’ll just have to see.

Before you called, I noticed that Bleeding Heartland reported that Rick Sanders was considering a bid.

Yeah, I’ve definitely heard his name in the mix. And that’s the interesting thing: If it’s one-on-one, I think King has a chance [of losing]. I don’t know anything about Rick, other than … he’s a county supervisor. I think one of the things is, it would be very difficult for a Story County Republican to beat King in a primary. Primaries tend to go toward the more extreme end of things, for the most part. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it would be difficult.

If it becomes a three-way primary, I think that benefits King more than anything.

Do you think Feenstra’s a serious candidate?

I mean, he’s a state senator. I don’t know. There’s some things being lobbed already from both sides [laughs], and I think it’s going to make for a very interesting primary.

I was in Sioux City on election night and witnessed the moment when you saw the results. What went through your mind then? That was kind of an amazing last few weeks of the election, where you got a ton of momentum.

It was nuts, because for the most part, for the last few months, I was waving my arms, telling folks this race was going to come down to the wire. It was really hard to get more and more attraction, and then that last week just blew up.

[Laughs] Election night is one of those things where I guess sports has really taught me never get too high or never get too low. It’s one of those things where it was pretty cool because we were up most of the night but then ultimately we… we know the outcome. And it sucked, but it was one of those things where I gave it my all. The night before the election, I went to bed knowing that no matter the outcome, I gave it everything I had and I’d accept whatever my fate would be.

If there’s a way you could summarize the whole experience, how would you? Was there a moment in your professional sports career that was comparable? Even though you lost, you came closer than anyone ever has to defeating this guy whose victory has always been considered a foregone conclusion.

It’s tough, because politics is such a zero-sum game. You either win or you don’t. This is a weird middle ground, and it’s similar to what Stacy Abrams and Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke are kind of dealing with now. We ran races where we outperformed people’s expectations, and it’s kind of, what’s next?

Beto O’Rourke, they’re talking about him as a potential presidential candidate. Are you thinking about a presidential bid yourself?

[Laughs] I can promise you I’m not thinking a presidential race. No.

But I got into this because I want to improve people’s lives in the 4th District in Iowa, and there’s other ways of doing it, too. I’m trying to figure those things out right now. It was an amazing journey, and I absolutely loved it and it was a blast. It sucks that I lost, but at the same time, it’s something I’ll never forget.

I read a lot about how you were on the road all the time, sleeping in your campaign bus. Have you caught up on your sleep since the election?

[Laughs] Surprisingly not. I’ve been go, go, go. I’ve been traveling a lot and going to a lot of meetings, trying to decide what’s next.

And that’s the million-dollar question with you, I guess.

Yeah. I’ll be launching something here soon for a job that will take me for a little bit. I’m looking forward to this.

What do you mean by launching?

There will be a press release that should be coming within the next week. Then, from there, whether I run again, I’m leaving it open. I’m just trying to see. I need a few months of work in before I make that decision.

Who else is involved?

It’s a group that exists already in a different state, and they want to grow. It’s an anti-poverty nonprofit, I’ll say that.

Do you have deadline in mind for your decision [on running for Congress again]?

I wish I did [laughs]. It would help me sleep better at night.

Is there a point after which you decide you’re out?

Definitely. It’s one of those things where I don’t plan to keep it unknown and pigeon-hole somebody else. If somebody comes up to me and says, hey, I’m interested in running in the 4th, I’d be more than willing to be honest with them and say, hey, you know, I’m going to do it, or I’m not going to do it, or give me till this date, or something like that.

Do you have a litmus test, so to speak, where if someone did come up to you about that, you’d say, okay, I’m not going to run, I’m going to throw my support behind this person?

If somebody came up to me and said that and my heart’s not in it or — some people down in Des Moines think I’m running for Senate for some reason.

Yeah, against Joni Ernst? That’s not a thing you’re going to do?

I am keeping everything open. I’m not sure yet. If the Senate thing happens to work out, I would make sure whoever’s running in the 4th’s well-prepared. I would definitely give them more of a start than what I was given and help organize things for them, because I want them to succeed. Or if don’t run at all, same scenario.

Part of your message was that you wanted to be an effective representative rather than a bomb-throwing partisan.


Would there be a point where you would consider endorsing somebody like Feenstra if you decide not to run, where you would throw your weight behind a Republican in the primary? Or would you be committed to the Democratic Party still?

That’s really interesting. I’ve never thought about that. I don’t know. [Laughs] I don’t know if that would help or hurt them. I would have to take a couple thoughts about that.

You came back to Iowa partially because of your family, if I remember correctly from when I first met you at London Underground. [He also mentioned the family farm when the Informer broke the news in June 2017 that he was considering entering the race.] Are you going to stay in Iowa?

Yeah. I’m home. This is where my heart’s at. I’m doing what I want to be doing. This is where I find meaning in life. Being a fifth-generation Iowan, being born and raised in the district. I don’t know what’s next, but I’m here to stay.

I’ve lived on the coasts, but, being from Ankeny originally, Iowa has a weird way of drawing you back.

Absolutely. But here’s the problem: We’re not drawing enough people back. Many of my friends are in Denver and Chicago and Seattle and Minneapolis and elsewhere. And they’re not here. I want to make Iowa a place that allows for anybody who wants to move back to do so. But a lot of places around here, it’s not really conducive.

A kid I graduated high school with [Brian Waller] is the head of the Technology Association of Iowa. I was down in Des Moines yesterday and I was talking with him about when I was working in Seattle. There was all this technology out there that could easily be implemented here. It would improve people’s lives, and it would improve not just Des Moines but Fort Dodge and Mason City and Sheldon….

That’s what I’m really passionate about. It’s not bringing Google here, it’s having entrepreneurship and having opportunities to grow. I think the next big boom in the Iowa economy is agriculture technology, and I want to be at the forefront of that.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.