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

December 30, 2018
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J.D. Scholten, the former Democratic candidate for the U.S. House seat in Iowa's 4th District in 2018, relaxes at his home in Sioux City.

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 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.

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