In Iowa, congressional hopefuls like Democrat J.D. Scholten are taking no chances in a coronavirus-driven campaign season that’s forcing candidates across the country to make extreme adjustments on the fly.
“This is a very weird thing to say, but I don’t know if I’ve touched another human in the last couple weeks,” Mr. Scholten said recently. “You don’t shake hands, you don’t do anything. It’s just a weird situation.”
Mr. Scholten, who is well-known among state and national Democrats after nearly ousting Republican Rep. Steve King in 2018, has been playing virtual host at recent town hall-style events for his party’s hopefuls who are vying to unseat Sen. Joni Ernst.
“The only healthy way to do it right now is doing [it] virtually,” said the former baseball player, who is eyeing a potential rematch with Mr. King this fall.
Mr. Scholten, Mr. King and the four Republicans battling with the incumbent ahead of a June 2 primary are doing their best to win attention in a state that has long prized person-to-person retail politicking but where even small gatherings in people’s homes are shut down by social distancing rules.
The five Republican candidates did participate in a virtual forum via Zoom this week. With several hosts added into the mix, the screen at times resembled the opening credits of “The Brady Bunch.”
It’s the same story for candidates across the country as even rudimentary aspects of campaigning, such as collecting signatures to get on the ballot, are rendered nearly impossible by the pandemic.
“All the things you thought you were going to be able to do [with] the campaign you’re just not going to be able to do,” said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah. “You’re not going to be able to go door-to-door. You’re not going to be able to go to public places and have people sign as they walk by type of thing.”
In Iowa, though, the 4th Congressional District race is also unique in that Mr. Scholten is unopposed for the Democratic nomination, while Mr. King has attracted a handful of GOP challengers: State Sen. Randy Feenstra, real estate broker Steve Reeder, businessman Bret Richards, and former state Rep. Jeremy Taylor.
With Mr. King on the outs with establishment Republicans, Mr. Feenstra has attracted support from people like U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad, a former Iowa governor, and Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative in the state.
The political arm of the Republican Main Street Partnership also announced this month they would be chipping in with a six-figure investment on behalf of Mr. Feenstra.
Mr. Feenstra raised about $123,000 in the first quarter, compared to Mr. King’s $43,000 and just over $60,000 by the other three GOP challengers. Meanwhile, Mr. Scholten, the Democrat, pulled in close to $340,000,
Feenstra campaign manager Matt Leopold said the campaign managed to build a substantial grassroots and digital infrastructure before the virus took hold and transitioned much of their voter contact efforts to social media.
“We have also been running television ads since mid-March,” Mr. Leopold said. “With our media campaign now fully deployed, voters are learning about Randy’s record of delivering conservative results.”
Mr. King held a 7-point lead (41% to 34%) over Mr. Feenstra, according to a poll conducted for the GOP challenger and released this week. But that lead is a big change from January, when Mr. King had held a 31-point advantage — 53% to 22%.
The campaigns acknowledged the difficult conversations that come in soliciting contributions from people who might very well be enthusiastic supporters but are more concerned with taking care of their health and their family, or are preoccupied with looking for a job.
Mr. Richards said they stopped soliciting donations when the virus took hold.
“A lot of people in rural America and across the country do live paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “I don’t expect them to give up a meal to fund a political campaign. I don’t think I need to, either.”
Absentee voting in the primary started April 23. In light of the outbreak, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate issued a directive last month extending the absentee period to 40 days for people voting by mail in the June 2 primary.
“I believe that most balloting is going to take place by mail, although that’s not traditional for Republicans,” Mr. Taylor said. “In a Republican primary, that’s a different dynamic.”
The GOP candidates did generally agree at the forum that it was time to start thinking about opening things back up.
“Do I think we overreacted? Yes, to a degree,” Mr. King said. “But I don’t think the president had much choice. Now we need to get this country up and running and do so wisely.”
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the next day that she was relaxing coronavirus-driven restrictions in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties and that retailers could reopen starting Friday at 50% capacity.
That applies to much of the 4th district save Woodbury County, which has seen a massive uptick in recent cases.
Mr. Scholten criticized President Trump’s move this week to order that some meatpacking plants stay open, saying a spike in cases in places like his hometown of Sioux City have been linked to outbreaks at plants.
“We need to protect the security and stability of our food supply chain but not at the expense of our workers and farmers,” he said.
Mr. King, meanwhile, praised the president’s “timely” and “correct” decision.
“Euthanization of market ready hogs has begun b/c we can’t get & keep plants open,” he tweeted.
Another wild card in the race is that if no candidate wins 35% or more of the vote in the primary, the winner would have to be decided via a party convention that could still have to take place online or virtually.
“It’s definitely a different world,” Mr. Richards said.
Mr. King was first elected to the House in 2002. He had placed first in a GOP primary contest that year, but he won 31% of the vote and was nominated later at a district convention.
A string of controversial remarks, including one on white nationalism in which Mr. King says he was misquoted by The New York Times, prompted House GOP leaders to boot him from his committee posts on the agriculture and judiciary panels.
Some Republicans gently suggest it’s time for the party to move on.
“He’s been on political quarantine since getting punished by the GOP leadership, having his committee assignments snagged away,” said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.
Mr. King’s ruby-red district in the northwestern part of the state had long been written off as safely Republican, though Mr. Scholten came within a few points of knocking him off in 2018.
Political handicappers have rated the race “likely” or “lean” Republican in the most conservative-leaning of Iowa’s four congressional districts.
The congressman said at the candidate forum that he’s been properly battle-tested.
“I [have] walked through the fire for the last year-and-a-half and I’ve been tempered by that fire,” Mr. King said. “People never wonder where I stand.”
Some of Mr. King’s GOP opponents had relatively kind words for his service but suggested it’s simply time to move on.
“Steve King has done some good things for Iowa, especially his stance on pro-life and Second Amendment, and I’m just hoping voters feel it’s time for him to pass the torch onto someone like me that’s also an independent thinker,” Mr. Reeder said.
Still, Mr. King is now a household name both in Iowa and in political circles across the country, giving the incumbent a name ID advantage in a season where it’s unclear who exactly will end up casting ballots.
“COVID-19 has chilled the political season,” Mr. Schmidt said. “I think King figures he’s so well known in his district he really just needs to survive the primary which now is in doubt due to the virus. Then he can go to his strong base of supporters and ask them to once again support him.”
Mr. King defeated Mr. Scholten by about 3 percentage points in 2018, which was a historically good year for Democrats as they took control of the House.
Mr. Scholten said he’s operating on the presumption that he’ll get a rematch whenever – and however – the general election does take place.
“As far as the primary is concerned, King hasn’t raised a dime but what we saw last cycle is that it’s so hard to beat an incumbent, especially in a shortened amount of time,” he said. “I have a difficult time seeing it being anybody other than King.”
While campaigns can sometimes tailor their strategies to reach likely absentee voters versus those who make it a habit of showing up in person on election day, the virus has forced the candidates to essentially junk “conventional” thinking.
“There are no models – there’s no anything other than just doing the best you can,” Mr. Scholten said.
Mr. Taylor said his campaign has been ramping up their social media presence and spending a lot more time on the phones.
“Would we be well-received knocking on a door right now with literature in hand? I think the answer is no,” Mr. Taylor said. “And so we’re going to have to adjust.”
Above all else, they’re trying to stay safe.
“We do deliver yard signs and things like that, but we are not going to any events. There just really aren’t any events out there right now that are face-to-face,” Mr. Richards said. “I’m not going to be the one spreading COVID-19 around.”