Northwest Iowa is one of the safest places for Republicans in the country.
It’s represented in the U.S. Congress by hardliner Steve King, who has a long history of controversial positions and comments.
But David Johnson also represents part of northwest Iowa. And while King might look to the White House and see a kindred spirit, Johnson calls Donald Trump’s rhetoric “misogynistic,” “race-baiting,” and “bigoted.”
David Johnson is a former dairy farmer who’s been a senator in the state legislature since 2003. He was a prominent local leader for both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney during their presidential campaigns but left his party after Donald Trump became its presidential nominee in 2016.
Now he’s running as an independent, and he’s not alone. Bob Krist, a Nebraska state legislator and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, is running as an independent in that state’s gubernatorial election. Kansas City attorney Craig O’Dear also left the Republican Party and is campaigning for the U.S. Senate in Missouri.
In Iowa, Sen. Johnson is facing Republican Zach Whiting, an aide to Rep. King, in November. No Democrat has announced yet.
Johnson knows running without the backing of one of the two major political parties could spell trouble but he sees opportunity.
“There’s no regrets here,” he says. “I’m getting quite a bit of support from people that I never got before.”
And he’s also feeling more liberated as a lawmaker.
“I’ve even been told that my job was only to represent Republicans,” he says, “the Democrats be damned.”
Erica Schultes lives in Sen. Johnson’s district and says she supports him more now than she did when he was a Republican.
Schultes, a realtor who also raises chickens and hogs, is concerned about the environment. In this part of the country, many environmental issues center around hog confinements. Johnson has sponsored a bill, opposed by Iowa Republicans, that would increase regulation on hog confinements.
Schultes and Little Swan Lake Winery co-owner Diane Benjamin are happy to see their state senator publicly evolve, especially in a part of the state where people’s votes have been a foregone conclusion.
“A lot of political conversations don’t take place that maybe should take place,” Benjamin says.
“I don’t think they take place out in the open,” Schultes responds. “I think they do take place behind closed doors.”
The two hope behind those doors there’s enough support for an independent Johnson to keep his seat.
But running as an independent can be tricky.
Evan McMullin made his name as an independent presidential candidate in 2016. He thinks that even in rock-ribbed Republican districts like Johnson’s, there are many voters in the middle.
“They’re sort of homeless in this environment and looking for something new,” McMullin says. “But at the same time there’s not much political infrastructure to support people in that space which I believe is the majority of Americans.”
McMullin has co-founded Stand Up Republic, a political advocacy group, which spent $500,000 on ads in Alabama’s special election last year asking Republicans to reject Roy Moore, their party’s U.S. Senate nominee.
Alabama elected Democrat Doug Jones.
Simpson College Political Science Professor Kedron Bardwell says that’s an example of how the U.S. political system works, and that independent bids are long shots.
“This is the trap of American politics,” Bardwell says. “We are a two party system and the rules that we have — winner take all — create a two-party system just by nature.”
And if Alabama isn’t proof enough, there was also Evan McMullin’s own race in 2016: He got just over 12,000 votes in Iowa, while winner Donald Trump received more than 800,000.
Sen. David Johnson is facing just a sliver of that electorate in November but the challenge may be just as great.