Iowa's Steve King Fights for his Seat 05/26 06:31
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) Rep. Steve King is fighting for his political life
but not because he's compared immigrants crossing the border illegally to
cattle. His Republican opponents in next week's primary aren't raking him over
the coals for making light of rape and incest. His chief rival's ads don't
mention the time he wondered when the term "white supremacist" became offensive.
Instead, the nine-term congressman known for his nativist politics is
fighting to prove he can still deliver for Iowa's 4th Congressional District.
Since Republican leaders stripped him of his committee assignments, in a rare
punishment, King has been dogged by questions over whether he's lost all
effectiveness. Some longtime supporters are turning away, not because of his
incendiary remarks but because they think he can no longer do the job.
"We all want to feel that we're being represented in Washington, D.C., that
we have a voice," said Iowa state Sen. Annette Sweeney, a former King supporter.
Establishment Republicans in Iowa and Washington, some of whom share King's
policy views and have long tolerated his provocative remarks, have largely
abandoned the congressman, throwing their weight behind Randy Feenstra, a
conservative state senator.
That sets up the June 2 primary, a five-way fight in a GOP-heavy district,
as a test of whether the establishment can effectively police the party and
distance itself from racist and far-right voices who critics say have been
amplified in recent years.
But Republican activists in King's district, a sprawling swath of corn,
soybeans and towering wind turbines, haven't been quick to accept the influence
"He's not what he's portrayed to be by certain media outlets," said Barb
Clayton, a leading GOP activist in the district. Clayton says she "respects"
King and believes his comments about white supremacy were taken out of context.
Still, she's backing one of his four opponents, though she won't say whom,
because she's worried King's diminished influence would cost him in November.
"My primary issue is being able to hold the seat. It makes it more difficult
to do that when he's lost his committees," she said.
Sweeney, who has endorsed Feenstra, offered only glancing criticism of King.
"His comments at times were just off the cuff," she said. "Sometimes some of
them might have been him trying to be funny or cute, though some weren't. In
fact, some were repulsive."
Still, Sweeney hosted two fundraisers at her home for King in 2014, when he
faced what was expected to be a competitive challenge from former Iowa first
lady Christie Vilsack, a Democrat. King won decisively.
By then, King had a reputation for controversial statements about race,
immigration and religion.
In 2006, King proposed electrifying the U.S.-Mexico border fencing to curb
illegal border crossings, saying, "We do that with livestock all the time."
In 2013, he said for every one well-intended "Dreamer," immigrants brought
to the U.S. illegally as children, 100 more "weigh 130 pounds and they've got
calves the size of cantaloupes" from hauling drugs across the desert.
In recent years, King received scrutiny for his overtures to foreign,
right-wing extremists. The outreach prompted the House campaign committee to
pull its financial backing in 2018. King was stripped of his membership on the
House judiciary and agriculture committees the following January after he was
quoted in the New York Times seeming to defend white nationalism.
The punishment sidelined King from defending President Donald Trump during
the impeachment hearings, a spotlight King would have relished. It also
silenced him on agriculture policy, a blow in a district that ranks second
nationally in agricultural production, according to federal statistics.
But it hasn't muted King. He's continued to defend his hard-right abortion
stance with provocative comments. Asked in August about his opposition to
abortion in cases of rape and incest, he wondered whether there would be "any
population of the world left" if not for births stemming from rape and incest.
Feenstra has called the comments "bizarre" but hasn't made them the focus of
his critique of King. Instead, the 51-year-old former candy company executive
promotes his work in the statehouse on big issues such as tax cut legislation
and attacks King for a lack of sway on farming and agribusiness issues.
"Steve King, the congressman who couldn't," the narrator says in Feenstra's
television ads. "Steve King couldn't protect our farmers and couldn't protect
President Trump from impeachment."
It's a tack Iowa Republicans say is working, in part because it doesn't
shame Iowans who have long defended King.
"You move away from the argument that he's an embarrassment and into an
argument of effectiveness when you get into that zone, people say this
matters," said Iowa Republican strategist John Stineman, who's unaffiliated
with any campaign in the race.
King argues that establishment Republicans have targeted him for being such
an effective defender of conservative causes.
"It's no single thing," King said. "But it gets back to their argument that
this is part of a pattern with me they are uncomfortable with."
But Feenstra's focus on King's diminished role also appears to have hit a
nerve. In recent candidate forums, King started telling voters he has struck a
deal with House leaders to resume his committee posts if he wins reelection.
King told The Associated Press that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he
would vouch for him when King appeals to his GOP colleagues for reinstatement.
McCarthy has dismissed King's claim.
"Congressman King's comments cannot be exonerated, and I never said that,"
McCarthy told reporters last week. "He'll have the opportunity to make his
case, talking to the members of the Steering Committee. I think he'll get the
same answer that he got before."
If King pulls out a primary win, McCarthy could have another headache on his
hands. Some fear mainstream Republicans might leave the ballot empty rather
than vote for King, allowing Democrat J.D. Scholten, who lost by 2 percentage
points in 2018, to win.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP's congressional
campaign arm, declined Friday to say whether it would support King in November
or opt for a second time to withhold support.