Democrat J.D. Scholten makes his pitch to the voters of Iowa's 4th Congressional District in ads with wind farms and cornfields as the backdrop.
The message—that climate action and farming go hand-in-hand—is even more explicit in Scholten's campaign platform. The fifth-generation Iowan says Congress should be encouraging soil management practices that make fields more resilient while absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. But the district's incumbent congressman, Republican Steve King, doesn't believe climate change is real. "This kind of ignorant denial is harmful not only to the people of this district, but for future generations of people all over the planet," Scholten says on his website.
Scholten faces probably the most difficult challenge in the battle now underway to unseat all three of Iowa's climate science-denying GOP House incumbents. King, best known for his inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric, is in his eighth consecutive term representing Iowa's most rural and most Republican electorate—a district President Donald Trump won by 27 points.
But Scholten, a 37-year-old, 6-foot-6 former minor league baseball player, apparently has been making headway while barnstorming all 39 counties in the district in a red, white and blue Winnebago RV. Cook Political Report upgraded his chances this week (changing the district's rating from "likely" to "leaning" Republican), and one Democratic poll has the candidates running neck-and-neck.
Key in all three of the contested Iowa congressional races are farmers, who have been battered by Trump's trade and energy policies as surely as they've been pummeled by the weather. Climate change may not be the leading issue being raised by the Democratic challengers—for Scholten, it's just part of his larger message that King is out of touch—but it is looming in the background, like the wind turbines turning in the horizon in Scholten's campaign ads. This election will test how long a state with 88,000 farms—and more than 20 percent of employment linked directly or indirectly to agriculture—is willing to tolerate elected leaders who deny one of the greatest risks to the farming industry.
"One thing about climate change—farmers care about that," said Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "Maybe not in the same sort of way you hear in a lot of other areas. But what happens with the weather—if it's wetter or drier—that's going to affect farmers' ability to harvest. They care about this."
Also, alternative energy is tied deeply to the farm economy in Iowa. In a state that is second only to Texas in wind power, farmers and other rural landowners earn an estimated $20 million a year from lease payments for hosting turbines on their land. Iowa also leads the nation in ethanol production, with more than half of the state's corn going to alternative fuel.
"Iowa as a state has been trending more to the Republican party over the years, and the party maintains climate denialism, but a lot of people here are open to renewable resources—wind power in particular, which is a booming industry in the state," said political scientist David Andersen of Iowa State University.
GOP Shrugs Off Climate Change, Can't Ignore Renewable Energy
In order to survive politically, Iowa's Republican House members have sought to embrace renewable energy even while hewing to party orthodoxy in rejecting climate science, opposing environmental regulation, and voting to bolster the fossil fuel industry.
King, for instance, has backed federal support for wind energy, an industry he said embodies "conservative principles." But he has dismissed climate science as "more religion than science," while implausibly claiming that "we'd probably raise a lot more corn" in warmer temperatures. With a lifetime score of 4 percent on the League of Conservation Voters' scorecard, King did not record a single pro-environment vote in Congress last year.
King's seat has been seen as so secure, however, that neither LCV nor the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have put money into the effort to defeat him. Both have focused instead on Iowa's other two GOP-held House seats, where Democrats have more of a foothold—the first district, encompassing Dubuque and Cedar Rapids, held by Rep. Rod Blum, and the third district, home to the state's largest city, Des Moines, held by Rep. David Young. Both districts voted for Obama in 2012; Trump won each by four points in 2016.
Both Blum, with a lifetime LCV score of 2 percent, and Young, with 3 percent, are among 25 Republicans that LCV has targeted to defeat in its record-breaking $15 million campaign for a green majority in the House of Representatives. Though both men voice support for federal policy backing wind energy and ethanol, both "side with polluters at just about every opportunity," said Tiernen Sittenfeld, LCV's senior vice president for government affairs.
"I'm not a scientist," Blum responded when Iowa Public Radio asked him about climate change. "I know most scientists' paychecks come from the federal government, and so right away that makes me a bit skeptical," he said. Young has tried to portray himself as staking out a middle ground. "I've seen, like a lot of people, credible studies on both sides of this issue," he said, reciting a familiar trope among those who reject an ever-more-solid mainstream consensus.
Sittenfeld called such statements "obtuse and out of touch" with farmers and other voters lawmakers are elected to represent. The possibility of replacing them with candidates who LCV believes will be champions for climate and the environment is the reason the environmental group is spending four times more than it ever has before in its effort to flip the House. "The stakes for the environment have never been higher," Sittenfeld said.
Blum, deemed by Roll Call to be the most vulnerable U.S. House incumbent seeking re-election this year, is currently under a House ethics inquiry for failing to disclose his ownership in an internet marketing company. Cook Political Report currently has his district leaning in favor of his Democratic challenger, Abby Finkenauer, a member of the Iowa House of Representatives who used public records requests to uncover and fight an effort by the fossil fuel industry to gain control of the Iowa Energy Center, a renewable energy research center at Iowa State University.
Young's challenger, Iowa businesswoman Cindy Axne, also has a record as a renewable energy champion. She worked for former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, in overseeing implementation of the state's energy and environment plan. That included working for tax exemptions and other incentives as well as research and development funding to help scale up wind power in the state. Axne has pledged to be an environmental advocate in Congress. "Our farmers here in Iowa are already starting to see the devastating and very real effects of climate change with increased drought and floods," she said when she received LCV's endorsement. The Young-Axne race is considered a toss-up by Cook Political Report.
Trump's Trade War Looms Large for Farmers
It's not clear how Iowa's Republican Congress members will be affected by their association with Trump, whose approval ratings in the state have slipped from positive at the start of his term to negative this fall.
Trump's trade war with China has robbed farmers of a key export market for their crops. The Trump administration's fossil fuel-focused energy policy, by giving regulatory breaks to small oil refiners, also has had the effect of depressing ethanol demand and prices. It's not clear that the president's visit to Iowa in early October to give a shout-out to Blum and Young and promise an expansion of the federal ethanol program—which will not happen for months—was enough to allay long-term concerns.
"It's incredibly hard to succeed as a farmer right now, and the president's actions are not helping," said Andersen. "He is not growing the market for biofuels and renewables. He is not growing our trade partnerships. Even while people in rural Iowa are trying to support this president, they're beginning to look at their own bottom line and wonder when help is going to come."
Days of Rain Drive Home the Point
In this atmosphere, Scholten has seen an opportunity despite having the odds stacked against him in Iowa's 4th District. One issue he's talked about is climate change.
"I think J.D. Scholten has used this as kind of a small wedge issue," said Anderson, "to say to voters, 'I know you're a little disgruntled with the president and with Congressman King, so let's talk about some things we agree on, and climate change is one of them.' I think a lot of people in the 4th District are willing to admit that climate change is happening, is affecting the agricultural economy, and would like to see their party be more open and honest and deal with it."
"Five-inch rain, seven-inch rain, there's crops standing in the fields," said Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, a family-owned newspaper in the heart of the 4th Congressional District. "This wild, wet weather we've been having—everybody knows in their gut that that's climate change. And you're in a bad mood when you see your soybeans sitting in six inches of water, and they aren't worth shit in the first place. I don't think that's what Steve King wants now."
Scholten has raised twice as much in campaign contributions than King, with support coming in from Silicon Valley giants Alphabet (Google's parent company) and Apple. Meanwhile, King has lost the support of several donors and received a rebuke from the chair of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, due to renewed scrutiny of his incendiary comments about race and ethnicity in the wake of massacre of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Cullen, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his reporting on how powerful corporate interests have harmed both the environment and the farm economy in Iowa, notes that the state has a history of bipartisanship—it was represented for three decades in the Senate by both conservative Republican Charles Grassley and liberal Democrat Tom Harkin. "Iowans do like divided government and they like clean government, and they have none of those," Cullen said. "That is the foundation for a wave, if the Democrats can seize it."
Top photo: A farm field near Le Mars, Iowa, flooded in September during rainstorms in the state. Credit: Tony Webster/CC-BY-2.0