The Most Racially Divisive Member of Congress Just Lost His Primary

Iowa Rep. Steve King wondered aloud how the terms “white nationalist, white supremacist” had become offensive in an interview with the New York Times last year.
June 3, 2020, 3:19am
U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) speaks at a press conference on abortion legislation on August 23, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.

WASHINGTON — As America reels from its worst racial strife in a half-century, Congress’ most racially inflammatory member just lost his primary.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) lost his primary to Iowa state Rep. Randy Feenstra (R), who led King by 48%-34%, with 43% of precincts reporting. The Cook Political Report has called the race.

King, a leading anti-immigrant crusader, had long maintained strong support back home in spite of his often-racist rhetoric. But he nearly lost his 2018 election in a deep-red, heavily rural district, and in recent years Republicans have begun to turn on him, seeing him as more of a liability and less of a threat to their fortunes should they turn on him.

The final straw came when King wondered aloud how the terms “white nationalist, white supremacist” had become offensive in an interview with the New York Times early last year. House GOP leaders promptly removed him from his spots on the House Agriculture and Judiciary committees.

That move played a huge role in this race. Feenstra hammered King for lacking any power or legislative clout to help the farming-heavy district, while highlighting his own conservative bona fides. And a coalition of establishment-leaning Republicans including the The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Right to Life combined to spend more than a half-million dollars slamming King for being an ineffectual lawmaker and boosting Feenstra as a true conservative who could do more to help President Trump in Washington.

Late in the race, King claimed that if he won, GOP leaders would give him back his committees — a claim they flatly rejected.

In the face of his most serious primary challenge to date, King failed to run a real campaign. He raised just over $300,000 for the race to Feenstra’s $900,000, and in the home stretch of the race he was flat broke, failing to air any TV ads in the face of a deluge of outside spending. His entire campaign, run by family members, amounted to tweets, angry op-eds, and a handful of debates attacking the “globalist” GOP establishment.

King had begun the race far ahead — his internal polling had him up 59%-16% last fall — but recent surveys from Feenstra and his allies showed a close race.

King has a long history of racist remarks. He’s compared immigrants to dogs and dirt, and in 2013 said that most young undocumented immigrants have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

He’s also called for an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, repeatedly bemoaned the declining white birth rate. In 2018 alone, he endorsed a white nationalist running for the mayor of Toronto, questioned whether Muslims should be allowed to work in his district’s pork processing plants and quietly met with leaders of an Austrian far-right political party that was founded by a neo-Nazi.

King had long been a power-broker in a key presidential state. Every major GOP candidate except Jeb Bush spoke at his 2015 forum, in what marked the unofficial kickoff of the 2016 campaign. After King endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Cruz made him his national campaign co-chairman.

But he’s worn out his welcome in D.C. Old Iowa allies including former Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) turned on him in this as well. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and other Iowa Republicans can breathe a sigh of relief they don’t have to share the ticket with King this fall.

After nearly two decades in Congress, Republican voters in King’s deep-red district finally had enough.

Cover: U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) speaks at a press conference on abortion legislation on August 23, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

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