ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Presidential hopefuls are spending a lot of time in Iowa, which isn't surprising by itself. More surprising is that Democratic candidates have been wooing voters in a Republican stronghold - rural western Iowa. Their guide to the region is a man who ran for Congress against a controversial lawmaker and lost. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters tells us why 2020 candidates want to be seen with him.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Underneath a big, white tent on the patio of The Mucky Duck Pub in Ames, Iowa, J.D. Scholten speaks to more than 50 potential caucus-goers. They were there to watch the first Democratic presidential debate.
JD SCHOLTEN: We built something this last cycle, and I hope you guys take it further. And if I happen to run for something, I'm going to take it from you guys and go even further.
MASTERS: The 6-foot-6 former minor league baseball player is referencing his close loss to Republican Congressman Steve King. He came within just three points. It's the closest any challenger has come to defeating the controversial nine-term congressman. Jeri Neal, who came that day to watch the debate, voted for Scholten. She's impressed that, even though he lost, he hasn't disappeared from the public eye.
JERI NEAL: That probably speaks to, you know, his willingness to stand up early on and say, OK, you know, we have some issues here. Let's talk about these issues. I'm willing to work on these kinds of issues. And I think that was fresh.
MASTERS: Ariel Nenninger was also at the pub. She wasn't there to watch the debate; she was just there for dinner with friends. Nenninger voted for Shelton.
ARIEL NENNINGER: Honestly, I didn't really know that much about him, quite frankly. But I didn't like anything Steve King really stood for.
MASTERS: Nobody really knew that much about Scholten when he launched his campaign. But he spent a lot of time crisscrossing the district's 39 counties in his RV dubbed Sioux City Sue, named after his hometown of Sioux City, Iowa.
SCHOLTEN: I spent more nights in a Walmart parking lot than I did in my home bed the last two months of the campaign.
MASTERS: Since losing the race, Scholten has taken advantage of where Iowa falls in the presidential nominating process. He started a nonprofit in January and also serves on the board of One Country, an initiative meant to re-engage Democrats with rural America. Scholten says the presidential candidates need to talk about the strain farmers and manufacturers are feeling from tariffs imposed by the Trump administration.
SCHOLTEN: Not only do we need to connect the dots between the rural voter and Democrats for the presidential election, but if we have any chance to retake the Senate and hold it, we have to start doing better in districts like my district.
MASTERS: He's held events with a dozen presidential hopefuls. Here's South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg taking the stage in Sioux City earlier this month after Scholten warmed up the crowd.
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PETE BUTTIGIEG: A big thank-you to J.D. Scholten. I'm not sure what his plans are, but I know that Washington could use a few more people like him. Just putting that out there.
MASTERS: But Steve King might not be the Republican's pick to run in this congressional district next year. He was stripped of his committee assignments in January by House GOP leaders for racist comments he made to a reporter. King says he was misquoted. Now he faces a strong Republican primary challenger who's raised a lot more money than King. After a recent heated town hall in Hampton, Iowa, King tells me he still represents this conservative district.
STEVE KING: I made promises years ago. I said, if you elect me to this job, I will use this seat to move the political center to the right. There isn't anybody that will disagree that I have done that.
MASTERS: But King's presence in this district has made it attractive for Democratic presidential candidates to appear here with the guy who almost beat him last time and just might try for a rematch next year.
For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.
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