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.