DES MOINES, Iowa—For a few nights every four years, the hotel bar at this downtown Marriott becomes the hottest spot in American politics. And sure enough, J. D. Scholten, a Democrat who is making his second run for the House seat held since 2003 by the anti-immigrant Republican Steve King, spent part of last night here.
At this point, with the first votes of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary just days away, Iowa is also a place where Scholten couldn’t get through a podcast interview without Elizabeth Warren calling him.
“We’ve been playing phone tag all day,” he told me, and declined the call. (They connected later.)
Scholten has appeared with many of the presidential candidates, but the only way journalists will find out who he’s backing is by driving out to the rural, low-cell-service area where he’ll help run a caucus site Monday night.
A peculiar mix of insider and outsider, Scholten was the perfect guest for the inaugural episode of The Ticket: Politics From The Atlantic, the relaunched podcast I’ll be hosting over the course of this crazy election year.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Edward-Isaac Dovere: Campaigns and reporters have been descending on Iowa for over a year. What have people kept missing about what’s happening in the state?
J. D. Scholten: You really see the pain that’s happening in America. It’s one thing to talk about some of these things, and it’s another thing to actually feel it. And the folks who do make it up [to] Northwest Iowa, I think they’re seeing that. We’re the second-most-agriculture-producing district in America. So it’s very much agriculture-driven.
A lot of folks just assume that if the tariffs ended tomorrow … that farmers will be okay. And that’s not the truth. We see market consolidation in years of allowing mergers. And what we’re seeing right now are a lot of small towns struggling just to keep their local grocery stores alive.
Dovere: The “Why Iowa?” questions are louder than ever this year. What do you make of them?
Scholten: I think we need, especially as a Democratic Party, we need to be very open that race does play in a lot of different things. It matters where you grow up and how much access you have to political candidates. And I understand that. And I think it’s a dialogue that we need to really have.
However, I think there should be even class diversity in D.C. And that’s one thing I’m trying to do, is be a working-class candidate who makes it to Congress. But Iowa has a lot of benefits to it. We do a really good job of forcing candidates to be retail politicians. And you see, traditionally, senators from large states don’t do well here, because they’re used to just fundraising and putting on TV ads. But when you have to go out there and meet people where they’re at, there’s something to be said about that.
Dovere: You were a professional Minor League Baseball player paying bills by working as a paralegal. How did you get involved in running?
Scholten: For the Women’s March, I was in Seattle, and it just blew me away. Just the raw power and energy. And I knew right then that, you know what? I’m going to go home and I’m going to make a difference. I didn’t know what that meant. And then when I moved back, I started working. There was no job in the Sioux City Journal, my hometown paper. I looked for a month for a job, and the best job I could find was 15 bucks an hour with no benefits. And finally, I saw there was nobody in this race for a month, and so we launched very humbly. And that’s kind of how it all started.
Dovere: Iowa is the greatest concentration of Obama-Trump voters. From what you’ve seen, who are the Obama-Trump voters? What was motivating them?
Scholten: Oh, man, if I had that answer … I understand why a lot of folks switched in. And there’s that pain, there’s that sadness that’s out there. And they’re looking for change. They want somebody different. They want somebody who will listen to them in. Obama ran on hope and change in some form. So did Trump. And he was an outsider. And so I see that. Look where the progressive movement in the Democratic Party originated from: It was a lot of prairie populism … Especially here in the Midwest, Trump was able to just step into that. And so that’s been a huge part of what we’ve been trying to correct: We feel your pain, but that’s not the direction we should be going.
Dovere: Immigration is an issue that is playing out for the country, and it plays out in your district because of Steve King’s harsh anti-immigrant positions. You ran against him, but he won. Doesn’t that mean the district agrees with him?
Scholten: It’s complicated why he wins. But I think the simplest way of saying it is, there are 70,000 more registered Republicans than there are Democrats. And so a lot of Republicans just view him as a regular Republican.
Here’s what I see in the district: [On] one of my first 39-county tours, I stopped in a very rural county. And I just started talking with them and asking what’s happening. And they needed 39 employees for the harvest and not one American citizen applied. And so there’s this huge need for workforce.
And when I talk about that throughout the whole district, I see a lot of heads nodding, especially in rooms that aren’t Democratic-friendly. And that immediately transitions into immigration in where we’re at, in just trying to find practical approaches to this issue. The majority of kids I graduated with, they all moved away. But at the same time, you look at my high school—it was 4 percent minority when I graduated 21 years ago and now it’s 24 percent Latinx. Some have migrated, some have just moved from California. And what we’re seeing in these dying towns, in these towns that are shrinking, some of these main streets—the only things coming in is a Mexican restaurant or a Mexican grocery store … Where [King] stands on immigration is pretty radical. And I feel most people in the district don’t agree with it, even though they might have voted for him.
Dovere: Iowa is an agricultural state, which means the trade war is hitting here hard. The national conversation has tended to be about people complaining that their avocados are going to cost more. What does it mean here?
Scholten: We have these multinational corporations that are dictating how we farm and how much farmers get paid. The reality of the district is, we have two farm-to-table restaurants [across] all 39 counties. We have farmers not making a dime. We have grocery stores closing all over the place. And who are we doing this for, then? If we’re not feeding ourselves, if farmers aren’t making a profit, the system’s a mess. And we have these “Get big or get off the farm” policies. If we don’t change in the next generation, we’re going to end up being just a bunch of contract employees. The No. 1 thing that I’ve worked on with our presidential candidates is, we have to enforce our antitrust laws. If you’re for farmers being able to make a dime and stay on their land, it’s antitrust. If you’re for fairness and a level playing field, it’s antitrust. If you want to combat climate change, we have to enforce our antitrust laws or these multinational corporations are going to dictate what we’re doing.
Dovere: The administration has been handing out billions of dollars to compensate for losses because of the trade war. Has that money helped?
Scholten: It’s similar to the payouts in the subsidies we see in the Farm Bill. A lot of the largest farms get the benefits and a lot of money ends up going to Wall Street or South America. The folks who actually really need it—the middle-sized farm and younger farmers—they’re not receiving what they need. Loan delinquencies are skyrocketing. Bankruptcies are skyrocketing, farmer suicides. It’s just awful. It’s one of those things that so much of agriculture is driven by policy. It’s really sad to see right now.
Dovere: Monday night, this all comes together in the caucuses. What are you expecting out of the night?
Scholten: You’re in for a long night. You have to be in line by 7:00 p.m., and if you’re not in a more metropolitan area, you’re going to have to move around. And in each corner will be each of the candidates standing … Love it or leave it, that’s how it is. The really interesting part is, after the first round, the entire caucus is going to be coming down to which campaigns are well organized, which they have precinct captains for, [and] what happens when someone doesn’t make 15 percent. Do they have that skill to convince [caucus-goers] that their candidate is the best candidate, in a very short amount of time? And so I love the caucuses. I absolutely love them. I’m also ready for them to be over.