The Kids vs. the King

Parkland students are vowing to unseat Iowa’s most senior congressman. But beating Republican Steve King is easier said than done.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 26: Rep. Steve King (R-IA) questions witnesses during a House Judiciary Committee hearing concerning the oversight of the U.S. refugee admissions program, on Capitol Hill, October 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. The Trump administration is expected to set the fiscal year 2018 refugee ceiling at 45,000, down from the previous ceiling at 50,000. It would be the lowest refugee ceiling since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Rep. Steve King questions witnesses during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Oct. 26 in Washington. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Most Republican officials have steered clear of directly criticizing the teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting, but Rep. Steve King has never been one for such caution. One day after 18-year-old Emma González led a tearful, silent tribute to her slain classmates during a march in Washington, King’s campaign shared a conservative meme on its Facebook page mocking González. It was a nonsensical attack—focused on the fact that González, who is of Cuban heritage, was wearing a jacket with a Cuban flag—but it was sufficient to make King the newest enemy of a burgeoning gun control movement. When King followed his Facebook post with a Twitter taunt about the teenagers’ demand to raise the age for purchasing some firearms to 21, the activists struck back.

“We’re gonna vote you out, Steve,” wrote Jaclyn Corin, a Parkland student and one of the organizers of last month’s march, in a tweet that drew more than 20,000 retweets and more than 120,000 likes. David Hogg, who has become a face of the #NeverAgain movement, created a new hashtag, #votesteveout, and before long, the young Parkland students were urging their supporters to show up at King’s campaign events and promising to defeat him this fall.

But ousting King is easier said than done. Despite a history of outlandish comments, the Democratic establishment has mostly given up on defeating the eight-term Iowa congressman, after he easily survived a party-backed challenge in 2012. To do it this year, the Parkland activists and their celebrity supporters are placing their hopes in a 38-year-old first-time candidate and former minor league baseball player named J.D. Scholten. “Help us @Scholten4Iowa… you’re our only hope!” tweeted Mark Hamill, who dubbed him #JDtheJedi.

“I’ll admit, that was pretty cool,” said Scholten, in a recent interview about the surge of support. A week earlier, Scholten had been a mild favorite among three relatively unheralded Democratic challengers vying to challenge King. Now, he’s the clear front-runner for the nomination, and a national cause célèbre, in a race that had previously been well under the radar.

King has a long history of making incendiary, and often racist, remarks that prompt national outrage, but they have yet to cost him politically back home . He’s suggested that government-funded birth control could lead to a “dying civilization” and that Planned Parenthood was using federal funds to provide “robo-Skype abortions.” He’s claimed no “subgroup of people” has contributed more to civilization than white Christians and declared, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” And most infamously, in 2013, King said that for every Dreamer who becomes “a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds—and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’ve been hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” King never faced any serious backlash over that from his own party, and he went on to win his seventh term in 2014 by a margin of 23 points. The following year, a majority of the Republicans running for president—including Donald Trump—made the pilgrimage to King’s inaugural Iowa Freedom Fest to pay their respects.

King’s closest race to date came in 2012, when Democrats recruited Christie Vilsack, the wife of popular former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, and threw more than $1 million in outside money behind her campaign. Vilsack focused on parochial issues like a federal farm bill, and the race was considered a toss-up a month before Election Day. In the end, King coasted to an easy 8-point victory. This year, King will face a challenger with far less experience and far fewer connections than Vilsack had. Scholten has spent most of his professional life toiling in the minor leagues and working as a paralegal, with little prior connection to Iowa politics. Nonpartisan handicappers like the Cook Political Report haven’t put much stock in Scholten or the rest of this year’s Democratic field, rating King’s seat as the only “safe” Republican-held seat in Iowa this fall.

For Scholten, the gun control cause could be an awkward fit for the district, which covers the northwest swath of the state and is Iowa’s largest and most rural. It is the only one of the state’s four districts that does not include a city with at least 100,000 people. Instead, it consists mostly of rural farm area dotted with the occasional town or small city. It went for Trump by 27 points less than two years ago and, at the start of this one, had roughly 73,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats among its roughly half-million voters.

But Scholten said he had no choice but to make gun safety one of his top campaign issues after what happened in Parkland. “This is something that has happened nationally—to do nothing is not an option,” he said in an interview. “We have to have a discussion about this.” He believes that discussion should start with the obvious answers and then expand from there. “One of the most frustrating things, and one of things that provoked me into running,” he said, “is that 97 percent of Americans want universal background checks—how come we can’t get something passed?”

Gun control, naturally, is not the only place Scholten and King disagree. Scholten supports a $15 minimum wage, an incremental move toward universal health care, comprehensive immigration reform that would protect Dreamers, and a woman’s right to choose. It can be difficult to place first-time candidates on the political spectrum, but Scholten appears somewhere to the left of a moderate like Conor Lamb, who pulled off a special-election upset in Pennsylvania this month, and somewhere to the right of someone like Pete D’Alessandro, the Bernie Sanders disciple running in the Iowa district to the south of King’s. Like Lamb, Scholten said he doesn’t want to see Nancy Pelosi remain as the Democratic leader. (“Democrats hate trickle-down economics; they should hate trickle-down politics.”) Unlike Lamb, he doesn’t use a personally against hedge when talking about abortion. (“I’m a guy, it’s not my body; it’s a woman’s right to choose.”)

That’s not the type of platform that has traditionally played well in northwestern Iowa, where anti-abortion signs are a common roadside sight. But liberals hope King’s latest taunts will be new motivation for an energized left—fueled by the anti-Trump resistance—and the media-savvy Parkland activists, who have proven capable of scoring victories against proudly un-PC conservatives who have traditionally been immune to shame. “This isn’t the first time Steve King has done something like this,” Scholten said. (King’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.)

While he’s seen an uptick in donations and volunteer sign-ups in the past week, Scholten said it’s difficult to distinguish any Parkland bump from the end-of-quarter fundraising blitz that was already underway. He out-raised King in the final quarter of 2017 by a 2-to-1 margin, bringing in donations from all 50 states, and he began the year with about $80,000 more on hand than his rival did.

The Parkland exposure could help, if it holds, but Scholten said past brushes with celebrities haven’t always been the financial boon he might expect. “Fundraising is a very, very bizarre thing,” he said. “When we first launched, Judd Apatow retweeted something of ours, and I was so excited because I am a huge fan of his. But we didn’t get one dollar from it.”