vision 2020

Will Iowans Dump Disgraced Racist Steve King?

Shorn of his committee assignments and treated like an outcast, Steve King is running for reelection on sheer fury. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s tough getting yourself denounced for racism by today’s Republican Party, a place where it often seems racism is only attributed to people who call it out among poor, pitiful, persecuted white folks. But Iowa congressman Steve King, by sheer persistence, succeeded in getting himself cast into the outer darkness by the powers that be in his party, as the New York Times recently noted:

House Republican leaders removed Mr. King from his committee assignments in January, after comments he made to The New York Times questioning why “white supremacist” was considered offensive. A number of powerful party leaders, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, suggested he should resign, and the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution disapproving of Mr. King’s statements.

Iowa Republicans, including both U.S. senators and Governor Kim Reynolds, joined in condemning King, who for years strode through Iowa GOP politics as an iconic, if always edgy, figure of angry conservatism. These pooh-bahs sent an implicit signal to ambitions Republican pols in King’s conservative district that taking him out in a 2020 primary would be a welcome development. They built it, and the candidates have come:

Hoping to win over prominent conservatives tired of putting out Mr. King’s fires, three Republicans — widely considered the most serious challengers Mr. King has faced in years — have already pledged to run in the 2020 primary race, including an assistant majority leader of the Iowa State Senate, Randy Feenstra, who represents one of the most conservative swaths of the district.

Feenstra is focusing less on King’s racism, than on the influence the district has lost because of the egregious nature of that racism:

“Today, Iowa’s Fourth District doesn’t have a voice in Washington because our current representative’s caustic nature has left us without a seat at the table,” Mr. Feenstra said in January.

It’s a shrewd if amoral approach. Iowa has always treasured its bipartisan clout in Washington to an unusual extent. King lost his state and district a prized position on the House Agriculture Committee. Even constituents who don’t mind their member of Congress insulting people of color on a regular basis frown at the recklessness that forfeited actual power (fortunately for Iowa, freshman Democrat Cindy Axne was appointed to the Ag Committee).

King’s pariah status in Washington has, however, given him a lot of time to focus on his district (a Washington Post reporter followed King around the Capitol and environs recently, and found he didn’t have much to do). Often an indifferent fund-raiser and campaigner, King’s now on fire:

Mr. King is returning to basics, reasserting an aggressive presence in his northwestern Iowa district, scheduling events in every county and holding as many as three town halls in a week, where constituents pack in, then linger to take photos and shake hands.

And now that he’s firmly identified as an extremist, he seems liberated to let it all hang out:

In his primary, King will be appealing to ideology over influence, at a time when Donald Trump could well be helping him by whipping up conservatives into a fear/hate frenzy. His 4th congressional district gave Trump 61 percent of its vote in 2016, so the ground is fertile for King-style fury, even though it contradicts every convention of Iowa Nice.

If King survives his primary, Democrats could give him a run for his money, too, particularly if 2018 opponent J. D. Scholten, who came within less than 11,000 votes of upsetting the incumbent last year, runs again. Ultimately it will come down to whether a majority of western Iowa voters love Steve King enough to proudly share his shame.

Will Iowans Dump Disgraced Racist Steve King?