Posted on June 2, 2020

Can Republican Steve King Keep His Seat After Becoming a ‘Pariah Inside the Party’?

Daniel Strauss, The Guardian, June 2, 2020

This might actually be the year Iowa Republican congressman Steve King loses re-election.

King, the conservative congressman who’s been repeatedly reprimanded by leaders in his own party for racist rhetoric and interactions with white nationalists, finds himself in a nightmare situation for an incumbent congressman.

King has been stripped of his committee assignments, including his seat on the coveted House Agriculture Committee. He’s been abandoned by more mainstream Republicans and chastised by party leadership. His war chest for his re-election fight are meager.

Most ominous for King, even prominent conservatives in Iowa have abandoned him.

But the picture is complex. David Kochel, a veteran Republican strategist, said King’s long history of outrageous rhetoric isn’t what’s driven some Republicans away from him, it’s that he’s essentially ineffective without committee assignments.

“He’s rendered himself useless to the voters and the constituents and I think that’s why he’s at risk of losing his seat tomorrow,” Kochel said.

For years King was a major source of headaches for party leadership. He’s tied immigrant children to being drug mules, questioned if minorities had contributed anything valuable to western civilization and displayed a confederate flag on his desk. He’s questioned why it’s offensive to be called a white nationalist. He’s also associated with far right figures like Dutch politician Geert Wilders. King also once argued to a far right Austrian publication about a conspiracy theory that elites are trying to reduce the white population and increase minorities.

Even Republican senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has suggested that King seek other careers.

That would be enough for most politicians to leave Congress or be kicked out but in most of his re-election fights King has won by double digit margins. Though that margin sank in 2018 when King beat Democrat JD Scholten by a slim 5 percentage point margin.

This time he’s facing four other Republicans for the nomination and then a rematch against Scholten in the general election. The influential US Chamber of Commerce is actively working to oust King as well although its officials concede the race is more of an uphill battle than other races it is prioritizing.

Chamber officials see King’s nomination as potentially dangerous to Iowa senator Joni Ernst’s re-election chances.

“The main reason we got into the race was of our concern of how a King candidacy could negatively impact Joni Ernst’s re-election,” said Scott Reed, the Chamber’s chief strategist.

King has a meager war chest while his opponents have proven to be deft fundraisers. Scholten has raised over $1m and spent about half of his total haul while Randy Feenstra, the preferred Republican candidate of the Chamber and establishment Republicans, has raised about $1 million. King has raised about $300,000.

King hasn’t spent any money on advertising while Feenstra has spent about a quarter of a million dollars and the Chamber has spent $200,000, according to figures obtained by the Guardian.

In the past, King has counted on the conservative leaning of his district and prominent figures in the state’s social conservative circles, like Bob Vandeer Plats, the social conservative activist and leader of the FAMiLY Leader group. Like the Chamber, Vandeer Plats has cut advertising to boost Feenstra. Donald Trump has also been silent on the race, meaning Trump supporters who lean to candidates with anti-immigrant messaging aren’t as inclined to support King.

Kochel said Trump’s refusal to endorse King even though he endorsed other Republicans in Iowa is “pretty telling”.

“I think it says a lot that he’s become a pariah inside the party,” Kochel said.

A recent Feenstra ad said that King “lost his committee assignments in Congress and embarrassed Iowa”. The narrator in that ad went on to say Trump didn’t trust King or let him fly on Air Force One.

“He almost got beat last time. So far hardcore Republicans, you run the risk of losing that seat, far and away the most Republican seat in the state, obviously there’s something wrong with you. So that really triggered a re-evaluation among base voters,” said Doug Gross, a former chief of staff to Iowa governor Terry Branstad.

The district is hardly a shoe-in for Democrats. In the last five presidential elections, Iowa’s 4th congressional district went for the Democratic nominee only once – in 2008 for Barack Obama. Political strategists see Democrats’ best chances of winning the seat if King wins the nomination. If he loses and a candidate like Feenstra wins it’s much harder.

King could still eke out a win through the divided primary.

“I think it could go either way on Tuesday,” said Iowa-based Democratic strategist Jesse Harris. “If he ends up pulling this out I’m not going to be entirely surprised. This is not only one of the more conservative districts in Iowa but also one of the more conservative districts in the country.”