IA-04: Randy Feenstra to challenge Steve King; Rick Sanders thinking about it

Nine-term U.S. Representative Steve King will face at least one challenger in the 2020 Republican primary to represent Iowa’s fourth Congressional district.

State Senator Randy Feenstra announced his candidacy today, and Story County Supervisor Rick Sanders confirmed to Bleeding Heartland that he is seriously considering the race.

The moves are the clearest sign yet that Iowa’s GOP establishment is tired of King.

A WEAK INCUMBENT IN A STRONG REPUBLICAN DISTRICT

Republicans should not have to spend ten seconds worrying about holding the fourth district. Its 39 counties contain about 70,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. Its partisan voting index is R+11, indicating that in the last two presidential elections, IA-04 residents voted about 11 points more Republican than the country as a whole. The top of the GOP ticket routinely wins the counties in King’s district by more than 20 points.

Yet King barely defeated Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten in 2018 by 50.3 percent to 47.0 percent. The incumbent ran a lazy campaign, holding few events around his district and raising so little money that had television commercials on the air for only a few days before the November election.

King received a noticeably lower vote share than Governor Kim Reynolds in every county he represents–including Sac County, where he lives. Click on any county on this interactive map to bring up results for the 2018 races for Congress and governor.

County Name

D Canidate 1 61% 30390
R Canidate 2 39% 10390

King above 70% of vote

King between 60% and 70%

King between 50% and 60%

King won with less than 50%

Scholten won with less than 50%

Scholten between 50% and 60%

Scholten above 60%

King also greatly underperformed Donald Trump’s share of the vote in IA-04 two years earlier. While the other three U.S. House representatives from Iowa did significantly better than their party’s presidential nominee in 2016, King won re-election that cycle with about 61.2 percent of the vote, barely more than Trump’s 60.9 percent in the IA-04 counties.

Facing a much stronger challenger in Scholten last year, King received only about two-thirds as many votes as Trump had won in his district. Even in defeat, Iowa’s other Republican U.S. House members, Rod Blum and David Young, gained more than 80 percent as many votes as the president had received in their districts two years earlier. Click on any district on this map to show the results there for the 2016 presidential and 2018 Congressional elections.

County Name

D Canidate 1 61% 30390
R Canidate 2 39% 10390

Republican insiders worry that King could be vulnerable in 2020, especially if Scholten runs for Congress again (he hasn’t ruled it out). Turnout will be substantially higher in a presidential election year. In addition, King’s baggage could be a drag on U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, who will be up for re-election in the next cycle.

RANDY FEENSTRA: “TODAY, IOWA’S 4TH DISTRICT DOESN’T HAVE A VOICE IN WASHINGTON”

First elected to the legislature in 2008, Feenstra represents Senate district 2, covering several northwest Iowa counties. The state’s most conservative Senate district contains more than five times as many registered Republicans as Democrats.

Feenstra’s campaign website now promotes a Congressional race, and a January 9 press release announced that he is opening a federal campaign committee. While that statement (enclosed in full below) doesn’t mention King by name, it portrays the incumbent as an ineffective advocate for his district and for Trump.

“What we’ve seen this past week from the new Democratic majority in Congress is appalling,” Feenstra explained. “They’ve made it clear that they want nothing less than to raise taxes to historic levels, ignore the rule of law and undue the successes made by President Trump. The President needs effective conservative leaders in Congress who will not only support his agenda, but actually get things done.” […]

“Today, Iowa’s 4th District doesn’t have a voice in Washington, because our current representative’s caustic nature has left us without a seat at the table,” Senator Feenstra concluded. “We don’t need any more sideshows or distractions, we need to start winning for Iowa’s families.”

The sign-up graphic on the front page of Feenstra’s website echoes Trump’s slogan, urging supporters to “Help fulfill our promise to Make America Great Again!”

The news release also cites some conservative selling points in Feenstra’s legislative record: tax cuts, voter ID, pro-gun and anti-abortion.

Feenstra would be up for re-election in Senate district 2 in 2020. Since Iowa law doesn’t allow candidates to file for two offices at once, he will need to give up his seat in the legislature in order to take on King.

Early signs indicate King’s challenger will have solid support from some quarters of the GOP establishment. The contact listed on his first press release is Matt Leopold, who was the Reynolds campaign’s political director last year. Reynolds endorsed King against his 2016 primary challenger and invited him to be a co-chair of her campaign for governor, but she has been somewhat critical of him since the November election and may stay out of his race against Feenstra. Former Iowa House Speaker Chris Rants, who is from Sioux City, posted on Twitter that Feenstra would be a “welcome and better choice for Republicans.”

Nevertheless, Feenstra has to be considered an underdog. Even with backing from GOP power-brokers like Nick Ryan and Bruce Rastetter, State Senator Rick Bertrand received just 35 percent of the vote in the 2016 GOP primary to represent IA-04. King’s latest challenger Cyndi Hanson received about a quarter of the vote in the 2018 primary; she raised almost no money for that race.

Many rank-and-file Republicans share King’s racist views, or at least admire what Governor Terry Branstad praised as his “outspoken” nature. Feenstra’s not well-known outside his legislative district and has never faced a tough political fight. He was unopposed in his first GOP primary for Senate district 2 and in all three general elections. While King is a lackluster fundraiser, Feenstra’s never been tested in that department either.

In addition, Feenstra may not be the only Republican alternative to King in 2020.

RICK SANDERS: “THAT’S ABSOLUTELY ONE OF THE THINGS I’M CONSIDERING”

Multiple sources indicated in recent weeks that Story County Supervisor Rick Sanders has been discussing a possible primary challenge to King. He was appointed to the board in 2010 and elected to that office later that year and in 2014. Sanders won another term in 2018, finishing second in a four-way field for two at-large seats. He was only about 700 votes ahead of two other competitors for the seat.

Sanders admitted to the Iowa Informer’s Gavin Aronsen in November that “he would have endangered his re-election chances if he’d criticized King during the election.” But he “agreed King was a problem, adding that the best time to challenge him would be during the GOP primary in 2020.”

Reached by phone on January 9, Sanders confirmed, “That’s absolutely one of the things I’m considering.” Does Feenstra’s announcement today change the equation for him? “For me, this is an internal decision based on conversations that I’m going to have with lots of people, and what somebody else does or does not do is not going to impact that decision one way or another.”

What would be his central arguments in a campaign against King? If he did run for Congress, it would be based on “the proven track record that I have here in Story County,” Sanders told me. “I’ve got a demonstrated record of success, and I think I would bring a really, really strong, powerful, positive voice.”

Sioux County (Feenstra’s home base) often delivers more than 80 percent of the vote to Republican candidates, while Story County (containing Ames) is the most Democratic-leaning of the 39 counties in IA-04. Scholten received more than 60 percent of the vote there last year. I asked Sanders whether Sioux would be a stronger base for a GOP contender than Story. “I think some people would argue that. I think others would argue it differently.”

Feenstra is promising to provide stronger support for Trump if elected to Congress. Would Sanders approach the race that way? “What I’m looking at is running to represent the fourth district of Iowa, and I would support anybody and everybody that works to the benefit of the fourth district of Iowa, if I were to run.”

Facing two primary challengers would appear to be the best-case scenario for King, who could win the nomination with less than 50 percent of the vote in a fractured field. “Some people would say that,” Sanders acknowledged.

Asked about his position on social issues like abortion, which don’t come up in the work of a county supervisor but would be an issue in a GOP primary for a federal office, Sanders described himself as “a conservative.”

He indicated he’s in no hurry to decide on a Congressional bid, since it’s “really early in the process,” but said he’s likely to commit one way or another in “weeks, not months.”

RICK BERTRAND: “THE DYNAMICS ARE DIFFERENT FROM FOUR YEARS AGO”

Bertrand represented most of Sioux City for eight years in the Iowa Senate before losing his 2018 re-election bid. As mentioned above, he received about 35 percent of the vote in the 2016 primary for IA-04.

Most state lawmakers representing parts of the Congressional district endorsed King in that race, as did U.S. Senators Ernst and Chuck Grassley, then Lieutenant Governor Reynolds, and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. Feenstra stayed out of that primary, Bertrand told me during a January 9 telephone interview.

Bertrand indicated he has no plan to run for office in 2020. He confirmed he has spoken to Feenstra about taking on King, and “I do support his decision to run.”

Asked to assess Feenstra’s prospects, Bertrand said, “The dynamics are different from four years ago when it comes to other elected officials.” King “has alienated himself among other elected officials. I don’t see a path where the governor, or Joni Ernst […] or Chuck Grassley endorses in this race.” In 2016, then Reynolds and Northey were potential rival GOP candidates for governor in 2018, so “they were trying to capture Steve King’s influence on primary voters.” Similarly, Ernst was a newly-elected U.S. senator trying to solidify her support among King’s base in northwest Iowa.

Bertrand argued that the current political context is far different. “I think Steve has put himself more on an island the last two or three years, and I just don’t think, I personally don’t think there’s going to be an appetite to enter into a primary like there was four years ago.”

Asked about the possibility of more than one Republican challenger in IA-04, Bertrand noted that Feenstra’s a twelve-year senator with a conservative record from Sioux County, adding,

I think anyone that’s a serious candidate would also understand that if more than one candidate gets in the primary, then it’s a complete waste of time. So I think that Randy has done his diligence, and I think he’ll be the guy that will put up the one-on-one fight with King here in 2020.

What advice would he give Feenstra? First of all, understand that “this is two separate races,” and that the GOP primary electorate “is much different than a general electorate.” Second, Bertrand said, “You need to go out there and not make the race about Steve King, but to make it about the future of the fourth district.”

How do you convince primary voters to fire the incumbent and hire you without making the race about King?

I think the difference between now and four years ago is, you’re right, I don’t think there was a clear path or a clear narrative [in 2016] that Steve King should be fired. I think that Steve has fired Steve. And I think that the narrative has changed where the candidate coming in may not have to convince even the primary electorate now that it may be time to move on.

Any comments about the IA-04 race are welcome in this thread. I enclose below today’s press release from the Feenstra campaign, background information on Feenstra and Sanders, and a map of Iowa’s Congressional districts.

UPDATE: Feenstra spoke to Bret Hayworth of the Sioux City Journal.

“This isn’t a whim,” Feenstra told the Journal. “We weren’t going to do this unless there was a true passion for change in the 4th District. From the farming community to business people, people said, ‘It is time. We just need a fresh face.’” […]

King’s son, Jeff, who serves as his father’s campaign chairman, said Feenstra told him in late December, ‘I love your dad and I would never run against him.’

“Today, misguided political opportunism, fueled by establishment puppeteers, has revealed that Mr. Feenstra is easily swayed by the lies of the Left,” King said in a statement. “From his statements, it appears that Mr. Feenstra offers Republican voters nothing but warmed over talking points from liberal blogs and failed Democratic candidates.”

Meanwhile, Reynolds told WHO-TV’s Dave Price, “I will stay out of the primary. I’m not going to weigh in.”

SECOND UPDATE: Grassley and Ernst also plan to stay neutral in the IA-04 primary, according to Price.

THIRD UPDATE: Kathie Obradovich reported for the Des Moines Register on January 10 that Bret Richards also plans to seek the Republican nomination in King’s district.

He grew up in Irwin, a Shelby County town of just over 300 people, married his high-school sweetheart, got a degree in civil engineering from the University of Iowa and came back home after the Army to work in his family petroleum and convenience-store business. The business was sold in 2015. He spends his free time attending his three kids’ sporting events and other school activities.

But Richards also views King’s service from the perspective of his second career. He has a doctorate in human capital management and teaches classes in interdisciplinary leadership at Creighton University. He isn’t seeing much leadership from King.

“Living here my whole life, it’s frustrating to see how ineffective he has been,” Richards said in a phone interview. “… For the 4th District, we do not have great representation in Congress. And we need it.”

Richards mainly keeps his focus on issues like rural development, health care and veterans’ mental health. He doesn’t mention the controversy over King’s inflammatory, race-based rhetoric until he’s asked. “He can answer for his own actions,” Richards said. “I know who I am. I know I won’t embarrass the state.”

King made national news again on January 10 after Trip Gabriel of the New York Times wrote about how King “Set the Agenda for the Wall and Anti-Immigrant Politics” before Trump. Excerpts:

The Republican Party hadn’t always intended to go this route: Officials tried for years to come up with broad-based immigration reform that would appeal to growing numbers of Latino voters. But Mr. Trump’s preoccupation with the wall and anti-immigrant politics reflects how he has embraced the once-fringe views of Mr. King, who has used racist language in the past, promotes neo-Nazis on Twitter and was recently denounced by one Republican leader as a white supremacist. […]

Mr. King, in the interview, said he was not a racist. He pointed to his Twitter timeline showing him greeting Iowans of all races and religions in his Washington office. (The same office once displayed a Confederate flag on his desk.)

At the same time, he said, he supports immigrants who enter the country legally and fully assimilate because what matters more than race is “the culture of America” based on values brought to the United States by whites from Europe.

“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” Mr. King said. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy condemned King’s comments. King released a statement claiming that he is a “Nationalist” but not a “white nationalist or white supremacist. Once again, I reject those labels and the ideology that they define.”

January 9 press release from Feenstra for Congress:

HULL, IOWA—9 January 2019—Today, Iowa’s State Senate Assistant Majority Leader and Ways and Means Chairman Randy Feenstra (R-HULL) will open a federal campaign committee, taking the first steps in his campaign for the republican nomination in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District in 2020. Serving his third term in the Iowa State Senate, Feenstra pointed to the need to provide President Trump with a strong voice who can help protect and advance a conservative agenda for America.

“What we’ve seen this past week from the new Democratic majority in Congress is appalling,” Feenstra explained. “They’ve made it clear that they want nothing less than to raise taxes to historic levels, ignore the rule of law and undue the successes made by President Trump. The President needs effective conservative leaders in Congress who will not only support his agenda, but actually get things done.”

A staunch conservative, Randy Feenstra has a long list of accomplishments in the Iowa Legislature. Senator Feenstra was a key architect of last year’s historic state income tax cut, the largest in Iowa’s history. Feenstra also led the way on reducing property taxes for Iowa’s working families and seniors. He’s been a champion of rural Iowa, defending Iowa agriculture, a supporter of renewable fuels and a proponent for Iowa’s main street businesses.

Feenstra also has a long record of results protecting Iowa’s shared conservative values. He’s been a leading voice defending life and protecting the 2nd Amendment rights of Iowans. And as a co-sponsor he helped protect the integrity of Iowa’s elections by passing Voter ID legislation.

“Today, Iowa’s 4th District doesn’t have a voice in Washington, because our current representative’s caustic nature has left us without a seat at the table,” Senator Feenstra concluded. “We don’t need any more sideshows or distractions, we need to start winning for Iowa’s families.”

As the next Congressman from the 4th District, Randy is committed to securing our borders, balancing the federal budget, simplifying our tax system and supporting job creators.
A former EMT and Sioux County Treasurer, Senator Randy Feenstra and his wife, Lynette, reside with their four children in his childhood hometown of Hull, IA. Prior to serving Iowans as an elected official, Feenstra spent seven years working in the private sector for the Foreign Candy Company leading a regional sales team. Senator Feenstra currently serves his community as a member for the Village Northwest Unlimited Board, Treasurer of the local Kiwanis Club, and as a full-time business professor at Dordt College.
For more information visit www.FeenstraForCongress.com. ###

From Randy Feenstra’s official bio:

Randy Feenstra is a life-long Iowan, currently serving his third term in the Iowa Senate. In the State Senate, Randy holds a leadership position as the Assistant Majority Leader and Chairs the Ways and Means Committee.

A staunch conservative, Randy Feenstra has a long list of accomplishments in the Iowa legislature. Senator Feenstra was a key architect of last year’s historic state income tax cut, the largest in Iowa’s history. Feenstra also led the way on reducing property taxes for Iowa’s working families and seniors. He’s also been a champion of rural Iowa…defending Iowa agriculture, a supporter of renewable fuels and a proponent for Iowa’s main street businesses.

Feenstra also has a long record of results protecting Iowa’s shared conservative values. He’s been a leading voice defending life and protecting the 2ndAmendment rights of Iowans. As a co-sponsor he helped protect the integrity of Iowa’s elections by passing Voter ID legislation.

Prior to serving in the Iowa Senate, Randy worked as the sales manager for the Foreign Candy Company for seven years, and then spent seven years as the Hull
City Administrator until he was elected Sioux County Treasurer in 2006.

Rick Sanders’ official bio:

Since elected in 2010 – balanced budget (1st time in 25+ years) – cut spending $6m ($42m to $36m) – reduced levy rate (taxes) by 6%

Biography
Rick Sanders was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2010 and reelected in 2014.

Sanders is a proven leader with a strong entrepreneurial background who knows the value of hard work and conservative budget practices. He has a demonstrated ability to build a collaborative group-first attitude in the organizations he has served and businesses he has owned. His fundamental belief and approach that collectively we can achieve more than any of us can individually, combined with his core principle that multiple viewpoints have merit and value, make him an ideal Supervisor for Story County.

When elected in 2010, Sanders brought over 20 years of experience in proper budgeting practices, strategic planning and implementation to the County. His strengths and focus have helped Story County reduce spending, balance the budget (for the first time in more than 25 years), cut tax rates and improve services.

Sanders is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Rick and his wife Calli, who is Senior Associate Athletics Director at ISU, reside in Ames. They have three children, Theisen (24), Jack (22) and Molly (19).

  • I have good friends in Story County...

    …and what I’ve heard is that Rick Sanders is doing some good work as a county supervisor in Story County, including his interest in clean water, which is (unfortunately) unusual for an Iowa Republican. And running and governing in Story County, which is politically purple, Sanders usually addresses county issues as a relative moderate.

    But running in red western Iowa, my friends feel, would bring out Sanders’ inner conservative. (His abortion comment in the interview above might be just the beginning.) And very possibly it would end his focus on water quality, partly because water quality is an issue which is often forgotten even when Iowa Democrats are in the voting booth, let alone Western Iowa Republicans.

    Of course my friends are Democrats and wouldn’t vote for Rick Sanders against a Democrat in a Congressional race. Sanders beat one of the Democrats running for Story County supervisor partly because, I’m told, he got some Democratic votes. One friend felt comfortable voting for Sanders because he was a moderate incumbent supervisor with strong experience. (The Democratic opponent he beat was a novice.)

    But Sanders would very possibly not get those same Democratic votes in Story County if he became the Republican running against a Democrat for Congress. And if he lost the Republican primary and then ran again for a local office in Story County, his inner conservative, as revealed via primary campaigning, might make a local run more difficult.

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