SIOUX CITY, Iowa — It’s been a rough couple of weeks, Republican Rep. Steve King conceded in a folksy but defensive address to a group of about 40 supporters here Saturday morning. The embattled eight-term Congressman claimed he’s come under a sophisticated attack from Democrats and the media, who are trying to block his re-election. That’s why he’s being called anti-Semitic and a racist, he insisted. “It’s more diabolic and more devious than we’ve ever seen,” King said.
He found a sympathetic crowd in the Western Iowa GOP Office, despite weeks of controversy over King's alleged coziness with white nationalists and history of blatantly racist comments. Gerald Pallesen, an 89-year-old from Marcus, Iowa, who introduced himself as an “old geezer,” even offered King a printout of a bull’s-eye to pin to his back. King posed for a picture with it instead. Those targeting King, according to the sign, included Planned Parenthood, two local newspapers, the Iowa GOP, and “two Jews from Des Moines,” among other groups.
“He’s dedicated to family, and to his political beliefs, and to his job,” Pallesen said, adding that he early-voted for King. Mark Andersen, a 69-year-old retired attorney from Sioux City at the rally Saturday, agreed, saying King is a “good man.” David Foreshoe, a 78-year-old retired high voltage cable splicer from Sioux City, said he “wants a candidate that’s going to protect my country.” He handed King a flag pin before the congressman got up in front of the enthused crowd to speak about his cozy relationship with President Donald Trump, grain prices, and the need to ban abortion, even in instances when a pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
Anything negative said about King the past few weeks had been willfully ignored — or not heard at all — by people here. “In the last couple weeks, it gets to be a game to pick on Congressman King because he is very outspoken,” Pallesen said.
King’s outspokenness is what got him into so much trouble in the first place, thrusting him into his most seriously contested election in years. He’s running against a self-described populist, Democrat opponent J.D. Scholten, who is fighting to win over Iowa’s conservative, rural 4th congressional district as a first-time candidate. The race has, to Scholten’s delight, become surprisingly close for an otherwise deep-red district. In just the past week, donors pumped more than $1 million into Scholten’s campaign, he said, allowing the former professional baseball player to become even more aggressive in his advertisements.
For some voters, part of the 38-year-old’s appeal is that he’s not King, who has become an increasingly divisive figure nationwide. The Washington Post reported that the congressman met with members of a far-right Austrian political party with historical Nazi ties in August. (King defended the meeting at rallies Friday and Saturday and said it was mischaracterized.) A few weeks ago, he endorsed a candidate associated with white nationalists for Toronto’s mayoral race, whom he praised as “pro-Western” on Twitter. (King wouldn’t comment further when VICE News asked about this tweet.)
And on top of that, he once wrote on Twitter that “cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end.” After such remarks were dredged up by activists and journalists, corporate donors including Intel and Purina PetCare pulled support. The head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, wrote in a tweet Tuesday that King’s “recent comments, actions and retweets are completely inappropriate.” Stivers also condemned “white supremacy” and “hate.”
When we asked at a Friday afternoon rally in Mason City whether he’d ever say publicly that he’s not a white supremacist, King countered, “Why would I need to do that?”
“You’re going down the leftist route here, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” King added before walking away.
His supporters relish that attitude and his willingness to fight back. However, his outraged detractors believe his most recent comments will leave him out of a job on Tuesday, especially as his district grows increasingly diverse. King now has to hope that Republicans stick by him, anyway, and trust their congressman has good intentions despite the controversies plaguing his campaign.
“Thousands and thousands of articles are false out here,” King told the group seated at the Western Iowa GOP Office. “And you know me. I’ve stood in front of you for 20 years. And I’ve stood before rooms with hundreds of people and said there isn’t a soul here that will stand up and and charge me with not telling you the truth.”
‘The world’s most conservative human being’
King’s been easily winning elections in his sprawling district since 2002. Trump, when hosting a rally for Iowa Republicans in Council Bluffs on Oct. 9 — flagged by supporters wearing “Make Farmers Great Again” hats — pointed to King and said, “He may be the world’s most conservative human being, and I supported him long before I became a politician.”
“I like the fact he stands by his guns,” said Ritch Stolpe, the 69-year-old owner of the archery shop Briar & Bow in Sioux City. On the allegations surrounding white supremacist ties, Stolpe said, “If there isn’t a controversy, someone will create one.”
But even before the recent allegations, King’s tenure was marked by blatantly racist commentary. In 2008, King said of then-candidate Barack Obama: “If he is elected president, then the radical Islamists, the al Qaeda, the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11.” In 2013, King said that for every child of undocumented immigrants “who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” In 2017, he wrote on Twitter, “We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."
In King’s district, about 40 percent of registered active voters are Republican, while about 25 percent are Democrats, according to data from the Iowa secretary of state. And it’s about 92 percent white, according to U.S. Census data. Many in the agriculture-heavy area are concerned with issues such as low commodity prices and the impacts of a trade war with China.
The three Republicans VICE News spoke with at King’s Saturday rally did not use Twitter and had not heard of his recent endorsement of the Toronto mayoral candidate.
“I’m feeling like I’m going to vote Republican no matter what,” Donna Garrett, a 53-year-old wound care nurse shopping at Kohl’s in Sioux City on Saturday, said, adding her most important issues were “right to life” and “protected borders.” When asked about King’s supposed ties to white supremacists, Garrett said, “I think that’s a term that’s thrown around because it’s a scary term, and the Left is using it for that purpose. I take offense to that.”
Still, this district hasn’t seen a Democrat quite like Scholten before. He’s running on committing himself to representing rural, economic issues in Congress. He’s hoping that typically down-ticket, Republican voters make an exception for him.
Tiffanie Wichman, a pet trainer in Sioux City who was shopping at the craft store Michaels, on Saturday and identifies as a Democrat, said King is “aggressive in all the wrong ways.” Her main concerns ahead of the election were education and agriculture, and she voted for Scholten because “I agree with a lot of his politics, especially more toward agriculture.”
Some recent polls have shown the race as a toss-up. Cook Political Report sees the race leaning Republican. FiveThirtyEight gives King a nearly 86 percent chance of winning on Tuesday. But even if Scholten were to lose Tuesday, the fact that he got within kicking distance of King shows how this district is evolving. For one, New American Economy said in a June report that immigrants made up 75 percent of all population growth in the Sioux City area from 2010 to 2015.
Christina Bautista, 52, owns the La Juanita taqueria, a popular hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint that features a photo of her husband and Obama in 2008 when the candidate was visiting Iowa. She’s originally from Jalisco, Mexico, but she’s lived in Iowa for 20 years. People in camouflage hoodies and heavy workboots were already ambling in for burritos at 9 a.m. Sunday, either heading off to work or just getting back from their shifts. The racism she’s faced at her 20-year-old restaurant is only one reason why she’s voting for Scholten on Tuesday, she said. He also recently came to her shop. “He was very nice,” Bautista said. “I like him.”
Bautista didn’t know much about King. She sometimes works as much as 16 hours a day, so it can be hard to keep up with politics. Her daughter keeps her updated, she said.
“These people just wake up and don’t like us; it’s just a political thing,” Bautista said when asked about King’s politics, adding she’s experienced racism in Sioux City, and more so since Trump became president. She said she still feels welcomed in the area, especially since her restaurant is well-known. But people come in and yell at her workers sometimes, even when ordering food. “‘Stupid Mexicans, you wetbacks,’ those kind of things.”
But for some King supporters, the topic of immigration and racism in northwest Iowa was top-of-mind in an entirely different way.
“The Muslims have a personal jihad against the infidels — that’s you and I — and their goal is to slit our throat,” Pallesen, who gave King the bull’s-eye, said. “We have to control our borders, and we have to control immigration, and we have to do it now. A nation without borders is not a nation.”
‘He’s not King”
Two days ahead of the election, as his campaign drummed up national intrigue, Scholten was casually bowling with supporters at Ridgewood Lanes in Fort Dodge.
Bill Kelly, 68, and Dave Haynes, 71, were talking and enjoying some beers at a table a few steps away from the candidate. When asked about their reasons for supporting Scholten, Kelly responded: “He’s not King.” “Yeah, that’s a big one,” Haynes added. “He makes a spectacle of himself,” Kelly said of King. Haynes agreed, and said “he’s a racist, he doesn’t care about the common man.” Scholten very much wants to be more than the not-King candidate, though.
“The 4th District needs a new moral leader, one who unequivocally rejects anti-Semitism, racism, white nationalism, it’s such a low bar,” Scholten said.
He’s been to all 39 counties in the district three times, and has held a town hall in each. His grandmother’s death, Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s March inspired him to come home and run for office (he’s also a freelance paralegal). Sen. Bernie Sanders came out to Sioux City and Ames, where Iowa State University is based, to rally for him. And when one poll said he was within spitting distance of beating King, $1 million poured into his campaign within several days, he said, leaving him with more than $2.7 million in donations.
“I remember when we did our first tour of all 39 counties, it was kind of like, ‘God bless you; somebody should run against him,’” Scholten said. “And the second time we went, it was, ‘Oh, you’re not just not Steve King. You stand for something.’”Still, Scholten laughed, “there’s not one poll that shows me winning, but I’m pretty darn optimistic.”
In the end, it’ll be King’s race to lose. But regardless of which way it goes, the district will be changed for Scholten’s challenge and the national attention that’s been brought to the controversial statements of its congressman.
Sandy Darling, a 70-year-old Scholten supporter at the bowling alley on Sunday, said King “is not representing true Iowans.” Her Republican husband will vote for Scholten, she added. “This just came out of his mouth a few days ago,” she said of her husband, smiling. “The news changed his mind.”
Cover: Steve King at a rally at the Western Iowa GOP Office on Nov. 3.