Scholten vs. Ernst?

State Sen. Randy Feenstra’s early and aggressive GOP primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, changes the decision-making for one of the rising stars in Iowa politics, Democrat J.D. Scholten.

Scholten, a Sioux Citian with an instinct for retail politics and a native likability, nearly pulled off one of the great political upsets of the modern era in his campaign against King last November.

Now with Feenstra, a Hull Republican, positioned as an exceedingly strong candidate, and I’m going to say likely winner of the GOP primary, Scholten would be wise to set his sights on the 2020 U.S. Senate race and Republican Sen. Joni Ernst. He has more of an opportunity to win that seat than the 4th District congressional spot now held by King.

If Feenstra wins the primary, not even a resurrected John F. Kennedy wins the 4th District in the general.

Sure, King, who has won nine terms, could emerge victorious in the June 2020 primary — a lot can happen in politics (and the world) in a year and a half. But if a winning King scenario unfolds in the primary, Scholten would have to wonder if King is also then strong enough to take the general election.

Scholten’s better play is to jump to a campaign statewide in a race with Ernst where Scholten will find more hospitable electorates for Democrats in Iowa’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts — while cutting into the traditional Republican margin in the 4th District because of his successful, although not winning, campaign for Congress here. 

In a very real way, Scholten has had a two-year head start in cracking the GOP statewide electoral foundation west of Interstate 35. He drove his RV — “Sioux City Sue” — around doing just that.

One of the only potential Democratic candidates Scholten should stand down for is former Gov. Tom Vilsack, who has not ruled out a run for the Senate — having recently served eight years as U.S. secretary of agriculture.

Vilsack may feel a responsibility in the presidential cycle, with Trump as the standard-bearer, to move Iowa for the Democratic presidential candidate, and there’s no better way to do that than by running for the Senate campaigning on farms in 99 counties and telling the ag sector how he’s going to travel to China and Mexico and Canada and other countries personally as a senator to boost exports.

But Vilsack is 68. He could be excused for wanting to enjoy a post-political life after serving as a city councilman, mayor of Mount Pleasant, state legislator, governor and U.S. secretary of agriculture.

If Vilsack opts out there is no Iowa Democrat better positioned to challenge Ernst than Scholten.

At 48, Ernst could emerge as a potential presidential candidate in the next 20 years.

Scholten was days away from becoming immortalized in Iowa politics as the King slayer.

Now, in a very real way, King is an unwitting ally for Scholten. 

King’s continued presence in Iowa politics makes the statewide Democratic argument stronger, and threatens the political survival of Joni Ernst, a Republican with presidential potential — and the opportunity, if she seizes it, to remake the Iowa Republican Party more in her vision than King’s.

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