Update, June 6, 2018: J.D. Scholten, facing two challengers in the Democratic primary in Iowa’s 4th Congressional district on June 5, won the contest with 51 percent of the vote, sending him to the November primary to face the Republican incumbent Steve King. “This is what I signed up for. This is the main event,” Scholten said in an interview with the Des Moines Register. “We need a leader in this district to help the farmers, and that is one thing that will set me apart from Representative King.”
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in May, a half-dozen Democrats gathered around a table at Kirby’s Cafe in Emmetsburg, Iowa, population 3,800, where residents voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 2 to 1 margin. Given those odds, the mood at the table was not as dour as you might expect, because at one end sat J.D. Scholten, a 38-year-old former professional baseball player and Iowa native who has raised nearly $500,000 in his campaign to unseat eighth-term Republican Rep. Steve King.
Here in the state’s uber-rural 4th District—ranked the second most agriculturally productive in the nation—corn, soybeans, and hogs dominate the economy. But King is known less for views on farm policy than for his anti-immigrant rhetoric: “Culture and demographics are our destiny,” he tweeted in March 2017. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
Appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment only goes so far, especially among farmers facing falling incomes and worried about becoming a casualty in mounting trade disputes with China. Scholten, a sunny Democrat from a farming family, offers an alternative. He has emerged as the front-runner in Iowa’s June 5 Democratic primary, where he will compete against Leann Jacobsen, a city councilor in Spencer, Iowa, and John Paschen, a doctor from Ames. If he wins, he may have a shot in November at unseating King: He has so far outspent the congressman, and though the district remains “solid Republican” in the eyes of the Cook Political Report, it was recently included in a list of races where Republican incumbents are “at risk.”
The hopeful smiles over coffee mugs faded, though, as a tall man sporting sunglasses and construction boots strode up to the Democrats’ table. “Why shouldn’t we vote for King?” barked Linus Solberg, a local farmer and agrichemical dealer. “What’s your background?” he jabbed. “What does your father do? What do you know about agriculture?”
Scholten gulped. But he’d been honing his pitch for hostile audiences. After all, the 4th District would not be won without persuading thousands upon thousands of conservatives—many of them farmers—to abandon King. Farm policy offered an opening.
“I come from five generations of Iowa farmers,” he began, and proceeded to give a detailed critique of the farm bill. (Republicans recently failed to pass it in the House; the Senate intends to introduce a new version any day now.) Solberg took off his shades and sat down, listening.
“I’m the first generation in my family to be raised in the city,” continued Scholten, by which he means Sioux City—population 83,000. The 6-foot-6-inch pitcher spent years playing baseball in cities across Europe. Until moving home last year he was based in Seattle, working as a paralegal. “I see myself as a bridge between rural and urban,” he said.
To win back control of the House, Democrats must net 24 seats in the November elections. For the most part, the national Democratic leadership have put their resources behind candidates in districts with large urban and suburban populations, which makes mathematical sense. The conservative-liberal divide has become so absolute, geography-wise, that Clinton won nearly 90 percent of counties in urban core areas, while Trump won nearly 90 percent of rural counties. Naturally, party leadership wants to invest in races where the odds of winning are highest.
Yet the success of the Scholten campaign, which has thus far thrived without the backing of the national party, hinges on whether it can draw independent and conservative-minded rural voters with progressive ideas that don’t threaten their bedrock values. If successful, it could even serve as a road map for bridging the urban-rural rift nationally.
Farmers may turn out to be a key constituency on that journey. Even in a state like Iowa, farm operators comprise just 4 percent of the population, but they are the symbolic core of a wider agricultural industry encompassing everything from John Deere dealers to ethanol plants, on which one-third of the Iowa economy, and one in five of the state’s jobs, rest.
A recent analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that, because farmers are so heavily concentrated in districts Trump won, they could easily swing elections if motivated to do so: The number of farm operators in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—swing states that went to Trump—far exceeds his margin of victory.
As the midterm election season heats up, that motivation could come from the severe economic anxiety many farmers find themselves facing. The forces of supply and demand have not been working in their favor lately: The prices earned for corn, soy, and wheat have hovered at or below the cost of production in recent years, the product of a global grain glut. Farmer income is down 50 percent nationally since 2013; in Iowa, it has plummeted 74 percent.
Adding insult to injury, President Trump initiated a trade skirmish this spring that resulted in China threatening retaliatory tariffs on scores of US agricultural products. Should these go into effect, American pork and soybeans would be subject to a 25 percent tariff. Iowa is the nation’s top pork producer and ranks second in soybeans.
Scholten harps on the trade issue at every opportunity. In mid-May, news broke that China had canceled about 200,000 metric tons of US soybean purchases and tripled its purchases of Russian soybeans, prompting him to tweet: “Iowa has lost $100,000,000 because the threat of tariffs and now this. @SteveKingIA where are you at?”
King did sign a letter in mid-April to Trump urging him to pursue trade negotiations in a way that would “avoid retaliation.” He also introduced a bill in January that would have prevented states from enacting agriculture laws that are more stringent than those at the federal level—which critics viewed as a tool to silence local opposition to Big Ag. But Scholten is quick to remind farmers that King has never passed a piece of agricultural legislation, or much else: “He’s gotten one bill through in 16 years, which was to rename a post office.”
King’s inability to attract legislative support has earned him the title of least effective member of Congress from InsideGov. But his anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, and pro-gun rights agenda has kept him popular with conservative voters nonetheless.
So, will farmers pivot toward someone playing to their economic interests, even if it means going against their values? King is betting they won’t. Scholten is hoping they will.
Over the course of several days riding along with Scholten’s campaign in Iowa, I heard many farmers express hope that the proposed tariffs are simply a negotiating tactic and will not come to pass. In late May, Trump began backpedaling on his tariff talk, trying to win back rural support with fresh reassurances from China that the country will buy more American goods—like soybeans—after all. The trade war is “on hold,” said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on May 20.
But on May 29, Trump flopped again, pledging to implement import duties worth $50 billion by late June. Presumably the Chinese will follow suit and retaliate, as they have pledged, against American agricultural products, though details were unclear as of press time. On May 31, the US enacted stiff tariffs on aluminum and steel from the European Union, Canada and Mexico, threatening to upend North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations critical to American agricultural exports. The Mexican government responded immediately with a tariff on several US food products, including pork.
But trade is not the only issue threatening to drive a wedge between Iowa’s farmers and the GOP come November.
“I would vote for a Democrat if it was the right person,” Dan Chism, a corn and soybean farmer and fan of both Trump and King, told me. The 44-year-old said if there’s one thing that could tempt him away from the GOP, it would probably be a strong opposition to agribusiness mergers, such as the Bayer-Monsanto deal approved this week. He worried the new conglomerate, the largest agrochemical and seed company in the world, would drive up prices. “Mergers always seem to go through, which is frustrating,” he said.
Linus Solberg, the man in the shades at Kirby’s Cafe, told me consolidation in the pork industry destroyed the hog breeding business his father handed down to him. “These companies control everything from semen to cellophane.”
“You talk to any farmer and they’re concerned about consolidation,” said Austin Frerick, an economist from Winterset, Iowa, and an advisor to the Scholten campaign. “Yet groups like the Farm Bureau”—an advocacy organization that moves in lockstep with industrial agriculture—”are silent about the mergers.”
Democrats give lip service to supporting small, independent farmers, said Frerick, but have done little to prevent the wave of corporate consolidation in the industry. The bipartisan embrace of Big Ag is perhaps a missed opportunity for Democrats to differentiate themselves in a positive light to rural voters. “Consolidation and mergers have completely changed the game, and ultimately, the farmers are the ones to suffer,” Scholten said.
As Solberg and Scholten debated the farm bill at Kirby’s Cafe, Scholten mentioned that House Republicans want to gut farm programs that pay farmers to set aside a portion of their land for conservation rather than farming. Liberals have attacked the move for environmental reasons, but Scholten sees an economic angle. Putting land in conservation would reduce the volume of grain on the market, helping to restore the balance of supply and demand and boosting farmer profits in the process. “My message to farmers is, ‘How can I help you get more value for your products?'” Scholten told me.
There are signs farmers may be more “flippable” than their deeply conservative reputation suggested during the last presidential election. According to a Quinnipac University poll in March, farmer confidence in Trump has eroded. The nationwide poll of 750 farmers found that 67 percent voted for Trump, but only 45 percent said they would do so again in 2020. Most view themselves not so much as Republicans, but as conservative-leaning independents who value free thinking over party identity. According to the Chicago Tribune, unaffiliated, or “no party,” voters make up 36 percent of Iowa voters, “compared with 33 percent who register Republican and 31 percent registered Democrat.”
Solberg is a case in point. A friend of his describes him as “one of the most conservative people I know.” Yet he serves on the local Board of Supervisors as a Democrat. Well, sort of a Democrat. His politics are all over the place.
“I’m an America-first kind of guy,” Solberg, 78, told me. But “Bernie had the best ideas.” Still, “it’s worth having Trump in there for four years if the EPA guy [Administrator Scott Pruitt] can stop some of those crazy, crazy things that the Democrats put in there,” he said, referring to Obama-era environmental regulations that many farmers detest—such as the “Clean Water Rule,” which, had it not been reversed by the Trump administration, would have granted the EPA greater authority to regulate farming practices that pollute waterways.
A poll by the Des Moines Register in December 2017 found that 34 percent of Iowa voters planned to vote for a Republican in the midterms, and 40 percent for a Democrat. The numbers were reversed in the 4th District, the state’s most conservative, where 39 percent said they would vote for a Republican, compared to 36 percent who would back a Democrat. But the 3 percent margin is still much closer than Democrats have ever come to beating King.
Plus, 14 percent of 4th District residents were undecided—the group Scholten hopes to persuade. Iowa had more counties that flipped from Obama to Trump than any other state, five of them in the 4th District, so his optimism about flipping them back again is not unfounded. “We regularly receive donations from registered Republicans,” Scholten told me.
Rural America was once populated with plenty of Democrats. Bill Clinton won the rural vote twice. In the Midwest, the Prairie Populist movement of rural progressives last asserted itself during the farm crisis of the 1980s, but its energy has since largely dissipated.
However, no stop on Scholten’s campaign tour is complete without the candidate conjuring in his stump speech the spirit of one of the last politicians in Iowa to hail from the Prairie Populist tradition: retired Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who remains a beloved figure in the 4th District.
“People knew him, they trusted him,” explained John Whitaker, an Iowa farmer, former state representative, and former Obama appointee to the US Department of Agriculture. That was true even for his conservative constituents, Whitaker pointed out.
This spring, Whitaker founded Rural Forward, an organization that seeks to win converts to the Democratic Party in rural districts. He believes establishing common ground on economic issues, while agreeing to disagree on issues like gun control, abortion, and gay rights, is the only way Scholten will win over enough King voters to reach a majority in November. On hot-button social issues, conservatives will say, “I don’t like it, but at least I know where you stand,” offered Whitaker. Related advice for Democrats seeking rural support: “Get out there and let people see who you are.”
Scholten has taken this advice to heart, eschewing television ads and campaigning in a retro-style Winnebago instead. He hits up to six counties a day, meeting with constituents in diners and fast food restaurants. He has a staff of nine, but over the course of the two days I spent with him, he drove the RV himself and often slept in a bunk over the cab.
The Daily Times Herald, the local paper in Carroll, Iowa, honed in on this down-to-earth quality in their endorsement of Scholten: “He’s a Democrat true and blue, but he doesn’t present as unbendingly ideological or engage in the sort of condescending cultural commentary that so often sinks other members of his party.”
Back at Kirby’s Cafe, Scholten and Solberg began debating crop insurance, which kicks in when pests or floods wipe out the harvest or market prices fall. The Democratic hopeful and conservative voter seemed to edge closer: They both agreed the 60 percent subsidy the federal government provides for crop insurance premiums should not be available to farmers above a certain income level—more than two-thirds of crop insurance goes to the wealthiest 10 percent of farmers under the current system.
“It’s taxpayers who are paying for that!” shouted Solberg.
Flashing his bipartisan bona fides, Scholten replied: “[Iowa Republican] Senator Grassley is a big advocate for changing that and I totally agree with him.”
“Somebody has to do something about it,” Solberg snorted. “You have to have balls when you go in there and fight for stuff like that.” Apparently Scholten passed the test: The aging farmer handed him a check as he walked out the door.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, non-profit news organization.