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For nearly two decades, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has faced few repercussions for his ever-increasing string of racist remarks about immigrants and his coziness with fringe right-wing activists.
But now it’s King’s turn in the barrel.
Republicans in his solidly conservative district finally seem like they’ve had enough of King’s big mouth and increasing isolation in Washington. Old allies have turned against him. He’s facing an onslaught of attacks from outside groups. And his primary rival, conservative Iowa state Sen. Randy Feenstra (R), is running circles around him in fundraising and endorsements.
King is out of money, and polls are quickly headed in the wrong direction for the longtime lawmaker heading into his June 2 primary.
“King is in serious trouble,” said Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican. “He’s basically said, ‘I'm going to run on my reputation; I’m not going to spend a dime because I don’t have a dime, and I don’t think he can beat me.’ And now he’s seeing there’s real risk to that.”
This one-sided campaign seems to be moving fast against King. He released an internal poll in October that had him up on Feenstra by 59%-15%. But in recent weeks, TV ads boosting Feenstra and slamming King have pushed him below 40% — a dangerous spot to be in. The latest public poll of the race, from a pro-Feenstra group, had Feenstra edging King by 41%-39%, with three other minor candidates at a combined 8%.
King had long skated by in the heavily rural and solidly Republican district by maintaining a record too conservative to give other Republicans room to challenge him from the right, while doing just enough on the House Agriculture and Judiciary Committees to keep the local business community happy.
But while King’s habit of making inflammatory comments is nothing new, in recent years he’s finally begun to pay a political price for them. And even though it’s been clear for more than a year that this would be his toughest primary race since he won the seat in 2002, King raised almost no money and did little to prepare for the coming race.
National Republicans began distancing themselves from King in 2018 when 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. He almost lost his 2018 general election, hanging on by just three points in a district President Trump had won by 27 points. But even then, local Iowa Republicans stood by him.
The final straw came early last year, when King asked in an interview: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
That comment led House Republicans to strip King of his committee assignments. And for the first time, Iowa Republicans condemned his remarks: Sen. Joni Ernst called them “offensive and racist,” a comment seconded by Sen. Charles Grassley.
It’s not so much that King has changed as that the GOP’s tolerance for him has worn out. National Republicans stuck with him when he compared immigrants to dogs during his 2012 reelection campaign, one of the few times he’s faced a real challenge.
Even after declaring in 2013 that most young undocumented immigrants have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King was a kingmaker in the 2016 Republican primaries. Every major GOP candidate except Jeb Bush spoke at his 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 now, King is weak — and Republicans are fed up.
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), now the U.S. Ambassador to China, helped King ward off a tough Democratic challenge in 2012 by lending some of his top political aides. This time, he endorsed and donated to Feenstra. Grassley, Ernst, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), all of whom have backed King in past races, have refused to endorse him this time.
Feenstra has raised $925,000 through mid-May, according to Federal Election Commission reports released Thursday night, and has more than $125,000 left to spend. King raised and spent just $330,000 this cycle, and had just $30,000 left as of mid-May — with no cash for TV.
“Folks finally have an alternative with Randy, who’s conservative enough that they don’t feel like they’re abandoning their principles,” said Jeff Boeyink, a former Branstad chief of staff who backed King in past races but now supports Feenstra. “None of the traditional Republican activists or officeholders are rushing in to help Steve King. Their absence says a lot.”
Many Republicans are worried that if King does hang on, he could cost them his House seat in the fall — J.D. Scholten, his well-funded 2018 opponent, is running again — and drag down the rest of the GOP ticket. Ernst faces a tough reelection fight and Trump isn’t a lock in the state, either.
“It’s become more and more obvious that he’s a drag on the ticket, he’s more of a hindrance than a help,” said Robinson.
It helps that Feenstra is also a hard-line conservative who is avowedly anti-abortion, has pushed through tax cuts and is campaigning as every bit the immigration hard-liner that King is, just without the inflammatory rhetoric. His ads promise to help Trump build his wall with Mexico, protect gun rights, and restrict abortion. His most recent ad opens with the charge that because of King’s ineffectiveness, “conservatives are voiceless in Congress.”
Outside groups have fallen in line behind Feenstra, too. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which included King among its “spirit of enterprise” awardees just last year, voted unanimously to endorse Feenstra, and is spending heavily on TV ads that highlight his conservative bona fides and slam King’s ineffectiveness. National Right to Life is also backing Feenstra, in spite of King’s long and loud opposition to abortion rights.
Outside groups have collectively spent more than $600,000 on ads backing Feenstra. Bob Vander Plaats, a powerful social conservative who worked closely with King in the past, is among them — he cut an ad for Feenstra that began airing this week.
“If you’re going to be a representative you have to represent,” he told VICE News. “More and more people of this district, even if they like Steve King, are saying they really need representation here, and if Steve can’t do it they need to find someone else for the job.
That deluge of attacks has been met by stony silence from King. The congressman has no money for television ads or even a substantial mail campaign. His campaign, which didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story, is being run by his son Jeff — and the only other paid staffers are his daughter-in-law and a South Carolina-based media adviser. The coronavirus has ended his hopes to make up for his cash shortage by outworking Feenstra in meet-and-greet situations.
King’s best shot would be a low-turnout election where his hardcore base makes up more of the electorate, but the state has sent mail ballot requests in response to the pandemic, and voters who usually skip primaries are turning out in big numbers.
Even when King has gotten some attention in recent weeks, he hasn’t helped himself. His claim that GOP leaders have promised him his committee assignments back if he wins his race was swiftly rebuked by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). McCarthy said King’s white supremacist comments “cannot be exonerated,” and predicted that the GOP steering committee, which decides committee assignments, would likely give King the same answer they did when they removed him from his committees last year.
King’s latest attempt to reach the voters was an unhinged Wednesday op-ed in the Sioux City Journal, in which he lambasted the “billionaire coastal RINO-NeverTrumper, globalist, neocon elites” backing Feenstra.
King still has a cache of hardcore supporters in the district, polls show he’s still in the hunt, and Republicans don’t expect a blowout either way. In the unlikely event that neither King nor Feenstra hits 35% because of the other candidate, the race goes to a convention, where King could fare better. But barring a major shake-up in this race, he might be facing his final election.
“When you lose your committees and spend most of your time getting yourself in trouble, and therefore getting other Republicans in trouble who have to answer for anything you say, the time has run out on your ability to represent the district,” said David Kochel, a former King supporter who’s running a pro-Feenstra group. “I think his time is up.”
Cover: Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, attends a news conference after being denied entrance to the deposition and access to the transcripts related to the House's impeachment inquiry in the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)