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Rep. Steve King may be days away from the beginning of the end to his nearly two-decade congressional career.
A year after the Iowa Republican was stripped of his committees, condemned on the House floor, and called on to resign by a GOP leader for his latest inflammatory comments on race, his campaign is running on fumes and incapable of responding to the hits coming over the airwaves.
His controversial rhetoric has gotten him national headlines for much of his time in Congress. But after narrowly winning re-election in 2018, he’s on the ropes like never before as his primary critics, including leading challenger state Sen. Randy Feenstra, tag him as an ineffective advocate for the agriculture-heavy district.
“Kicked off his committees, King couldn’t defend President Trump during impeachment or help Iowa farmers,” a Feenstra ad says. “It’s been rough for Iowa farmers, and when we’ve needed him most, Steve King has let us down,” a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad says.
Feenstra raised more than twice what King did through the first quarter of the year and received a slew of high-profile endorsements. He’s picked up prominent former King supporters, including Christian conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats.
Still, others who have stuck by King say GOP leaders erred in booting him from three committees, including the Agriculture Committee, for telling the New York Times he didn’t understand why “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” were offensive.
“The Republican establishment cannot stand the thought of a person like Steve King holding a seat in Congress because they are not conservatives, they do not embrace conservative values,” said Sam Clovis, a former Trump adviser.
Local observers of the June 2 primary say the race is too close to call and that a few factors could help King stand for re-election yet again: a flood of absentee ballot requests presents turnout uncertainty, and a five-way race could splinter the anti-King vote. A party convention would decide the nominee if no candidate receives 35% of the vote, and political strategists in the state were split on who would have the advantage there.
At a candidate forum last week, a livid King spent his opening remarks blaming the New York Times for the story, GOP leaders for not exonerating him, and his fellow candidates for not standing up for him.
“Political opportunists have decided they want to jump into this thing thinking that I am wounded,” King said.
Feenstra announced his candidacy the day before the New York Times article ran. He was endorsed by former Gov. Terry Branstad and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. He’s received donations from major PACs and Republican congressmen including Steve Stivers (Ohio), Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and Paul Mitchell (Mich.)
Feenstra entered the final two months of the primary with more than $400,000 in cash on hand. King had less than $27,000. The funds enabled Feenstra to dominate the airwaves with ads touting his legislative record, conservative bonafides, and alignment with Trump on immigration.
Feenstra is “a perfect fit for the district,” Republican political strategist David Kochel said.
Talking About Practicality
King’s comments to the New York Times came two months after he was re-elected by less than 4 percentage points. Democrat J.D. Scholten is running again and will likely make the race highly competitive should King be renominated.
But it was losing a spot on the Agriculture Committee, whose work is central to Iowa’s economy, that was “a bridge too far” for many Iowans, Republican strategist Doug Gross said.
“It’s one thing to make comments that are — interesting, maybe — and get a lot of attention,” Gross said. “It’s another thing to make those comments in a way where you lose all of your effectiveness.”
Feenstra supporters, many who previously backed King, say their decision isn’t about King’s rhetoric or a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. It’s about making sure the district has a voice in Congress.
“Whether you like Steve King, don’t like Steve King or are indifferent about Steve King, this is not about Steve King,” Vander Plaats said. “It’s time to have representation for the people of the 4th District, so it’s time to move beyond Steve King.”
King recognizes the damage his committee banishment has done. He claimed during last week’s forum that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he’d advocate for King to be reinstated. McCarthy refuted that days later, saying it was up to the GOP steering committee but that it’s likely King “will get the same answer he got before.”
King’s supporters view their congressman’s punishment not as an indictment of King’s words, but as reflective of a coastal GOP establishment trying to force their will on Iowans, Republican strategist Eric Woolson said.
“When leadership says, ‘We’re going to take King off of these committees,’ people who support him don’t say, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to get rid of King,’” Woolson said. “They look at it and say, ‘Why are they doing this to us? It’s not fair to us.’”
Still, several Iowa Republicans said concerns about King’s ineffectiveness began before he lost his committees. He’s sponsored one bill that the House passed in 18 years and has yet to hold a top spot on a committee. That’s frustrated Iowans like Jeff Boeyink, a former Branstad chief of staff who previously helped King with his re-elections. Boeyink is supporting Feenstra this time.
“He has squandered what is a great seat to build that type of base,” Boeyink said. “He seems more interested in spending time on C-SPAN and espousing these radical causes as opposed to getting out and doing the nitty-gritty hard work.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org