SIOUX CITY, IOWA — There are three facts that Iowa Democrat J.D. Scholten likes to rattle off to supporters on his campaign to unseat Republican Steve King in the state’s 4th District.
First: 60 percent of Americans would be unable to cover a $500 emergency expense. Next: despite the United States being the richest country in the world, its healthcare system is so broken that over a third of GoFundMe campaigns are for medical expenses.
Finally, Scholten likes to add that no other political candidate has spent more time sleeping in Walmart parking lots. He attributes that to his endless travel across the state in his campaign RV, affectionately nicknamed “Sioux City Sue.”
The congressional candidate isn’t complaining, though. Scholten is hoping that by relentlessly focusing on issues of economic inequality and visiting county after rural county — often three, four, five times — he might just have a shot at usurping King, the district’s longtime representative and one of Washington’s most far-right politicians. In doing so, he might also help Iowa, which currently has one of the lowest minimum wage rates in the country, re-discover its tradition of progressive economic populism.
In today’s hyper-partisan political environment, it’s easy to forget how prevalent populist ideas were in the Midwest during the 19th and 20th centuries. As HuffPost noted in 2014, economic populism was central to the 1896 presidential campaign of Nebraskan Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who ended up losing to William McKinley by four only points despite being outspent 10-1.
“The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day…is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain,” Bryan said at the 1896 Democratic convention. “The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth…are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world. We come to speak for this broader class of businessmen.”
Iowa, too, has a documented history of progressive populism. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) for instance, made a name for himself defending organized labor, family farms, and was instrumental in helping to push through the Americans with Disabilities Act. Former Iowa Congressman Berkley Bedell (D) also had a strong populist streak when he represented the state between 1975 and 1986.
Scholten says both Bedell and Harkin are inspirations for him.
“We had 182 people show up on Tuesday for a town hall in Dickinson County [a county which went 70/30 for Trump in 2016] and it’s not just because we’re not Steve King — there have been plenty of people who are not Steve King,” Scholten told ThinkProgress. “I know this district, I was born and raised here, I know the corners, I know the people, I know why they vote the way they do I know how to fight for them, regardless of their voter history.”
He added, “This whole district needs pay raises, healthcare, these are just simple issues. We get so bombarded on everything else, we lose track of what’s important right now.”
Scholten’s rallying cry — revitalizing unions, increasing the minimum wage, fighting corporate consolidation of agriculture, and refusing to take any corporate PAC money — echoes the increasingly progressive policies many Democrats hope will propel their so-called “blue wave” come November. According to his campaign manager, Irene Lin, that message has helped Scholten build momentum as the campaign heads into its homestretch.
“People are really responding. I’m talking to more and more Republicans who say ‘we’re done with King and we need change here desperately,'” Lin told ThinkProgress. “The farm economy is not getting better, the Farm Bill has not been done, people are just really frustrated here in Iowa.”
Despite that momentum, Scholten still lacks the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which fundraises and provides backing for left-leaning candidates it thinks can win — and he’s not shy about expressing his frustration with them.
“Let’s call a spade a spade, the DCCC does nothing for rural Democrats,” he said. “Look at the Midwest: we used to have in this district these amazing progressive populist Dems in Berkley Bedell and Tom Harkin. The way the [DCCC] runs campaigns is so frustrating — there’s no way a DCCC campaign will be successful in a district like this.”
Lin echoed Scholten’s criticisms, and added that the Democratic Party had effectively sacrificed Midwest votes by allowing continued corporate consolidation. “Both Obama and now the current administration, both parties have failed Iowa farmers,” she said. “They’ve allowed for consolidation and corporations to take over…. [Big Agriculture] is the most extreme version of corporate consolidation and its something the Democrats have not focused enough on.”
For a first-time candidate to confront an incumbent as entrenched as King is a daunting task, especially without the outside help of the DCCC. But positive signs are there: Scholten has repeatedly out-raised King and is currently only six points behind, according to internal campaign polling. And there’s a serious hunger on his part to continue that streak, demonstrated by the fact that he has visited each of the 4th District’s 39 counties multiple during his campaign.
If Scholten were to win, it would not only be a massive shock to a longtime Republican incumbent — it might prove, once and for all, that a progressive, populist message can still resonate in the Midwest.