IA-04: Don't bet on Steve King losing his 2020 primary (updated)

U.S. Representative Steve King kicks off a series of public meetings this weekend with an event in O’Brien County. He hasn’t held this kind of town hall in a long time. The newfound commitment to showing up for constituents indicates that King was shaken up by his narrow victory over J.D. Scholten in November. He also faces growing discontent in Republican circles, both in Iowa (where he faces multiple primary challengers) and in Washington, D.C. (where he lost his House committee assignments).

Some commentators have speculated that residents of the fourth Congressional district are ready to move on to a representative with less baggage. For my money, the only way King won’t be the 2020 nominee is if GOP insiders somehow convince him not to seek a tenth term.

King doesn’t need a majority vote to win his primary outright. He only needs a plurality greater than 35 percent.

At this writing, three other candidates say they will definitely seek the Republican nomination in IA-04.

State Senator Randy Feenstra is poised to receive the most establishment support. His Congressional campaign raised more than $100,000 in its first ten days, staff announced on January 17. Former Iowa House Speaker Chris Rants has formed a federal PAC to get involved in the primary. The group’s website currently has only anti-King content, but Rants confirmed the group will back Feenstra.

Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor announced on January 24 that he will run for Congress too. Bret Hayworth reported for the Sioux City Journal that Taylor’s news release “cited his conservative record in his two-year term in the Iowa House, on the issues of abortion, gun rights and tax relief.”

“Iowans in the 4th District have an opportunity to choose a leader during this next election cycle with a conservative track record of results at the state and county level. Instead of focusing on past controversy, I intend to make this campaign about how I can best represent and serve our people well at the national level,” Taylor said.

Army veteran and educator Bret Richards is running a long-shot bid, he told the Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich on January 10.

At least two more Republicans haven’t ruled out the race. Story County Supervisor Rick Sanders told me earlier this month that he’s thinking seriously about running for Congress and King’s 2018 primary challenger Cyndi Hanson said today she may run again, according to Hayworth.

On paper, several of these contenders look like credible candidates. What chance do any of them have to win a plurality if they divide the anti-King vote?

Republicans who want to oust King face a more fundamental problem than a fractured primary field. A large number of rank and file conservatives share King’s views. They admire him as a brave truth-teller. Until recently, top Iowa GOP officials fed into that narrative. Here’s the transcript of a radio commercial Governor Terry Branstad recorded during King’s tough 2012 campaign against former First Lady Christie Vilsack.

GOVERNOR BRANSTAD: Hi, this is Governor Terry Branstad. Let’s talk about one of my favorite people: Iowa Congressman Steve King.

Steve’s a unique and colorful public servant: sharp as a tack, knows the issues better than anyone. He knows how to take Iowa to Washington — then leave DC behind when he comes home each week.

Steve King’s the country’s leading opponent of ObamaCare, always fighting for smaller government and balanced budgets.

Outspoken? You bet, and I like that. We know where Steve King stands. Guess that’s why the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers have endorsed him.

Steve King is a great Representative for Iowa. Join me in voting for Steve King.

STEVE KING: I’m Steve King, candidate for U.S Congress and I approve this message. Paid for by King for Congress.

The Carroll Daily Times-Herald just published a guest column by Peter Wagner, publisher of the N’West Iowa REVIEW. Wagner argued against reprimanding “our tireless congressman, Steve King, who speaks the mind of so many in his district.” I recommend reading the whole piece, but here are some revealing passages.

Yes, I agree with those who say King sometimes speaks without thinking. I’ve even introduced him at Republican gatherings myself as “The mouth from the West.” But as one woman said at my Wednesday morning Bible study, “I always agree with what he says even when I don’t appreciate the way he says it.” […]

I can’t help but reflect on the fact that the attack on King began just a few days after the Democratic majority took control of Congress. The charges against N’West Iowa’s strongly opinionated, highly conservative spokesperson were well planned and meant to take attention from the closed government fiasco. The shifting of attention is something the right and left side of the aisle needed to see happen. They needed to take attention away from their own bad behavior. King, even to those in his own party, became the sacrificial lamb.

King can get a lot of traction posturing as the victim of elites in Des Moines and DC, who are trying to shove their political correctness down the throats of northwest Iowans. Remember, he is a frequent guest on conservative talk radio and will hold town halls in every county in his district over the next year.

By the way, if the IA-04 field is so crowded that no one receives 35 percent of the vote in the primary, a district convention will pick the nominee. That’s how King won his first nomination for Congress in 2002, and many party activists are still in his fan club.

Republicans hoping King won’t drag down the rest of the GOP ticket in 2020 would do better to convince him to retire. They’d have to offer him and his family a sweet deal, though, since King’s son and daughter-in-law derive their primary income as full-time employees of his Congressional campaign.

Asked on a WHO Radio program last week whether he would resign, King replied, “No, no chance at all. I’ll go out of this place dead before that happens and the Lord will have to make that decision.”

UPDATE: To be clear, I think King would beat any of the above challengers, even in a one-on-one race. As discussed here, Feenstra has never had to compete against any opponent. I do not believe he has the political skills to defeat a well-known and (in conservative quarters) well-liked incumbent.

SECOND UPDATE: Todd Dorman wrote in his January 19 Cedar Rapids Gazette column of January 19,

Republicans now are lining up to repudiate King. But on the issue of immigration, among the most important facing the nation, this is King’s party. […]

Some Iowa Republicans also resisted King’s crusades, but most went along for the ride, rightward. And when King veered rhetorically off the rails, he mostly drew GOP shrugs. […]

At times, Iowa Republicans tolerated King like a bothersome weed on the fringe of the garden. But at election time, including last November, they’d rush to praise him as a “true conservative,” stand shoulder-to-shoulder at rallies and gladly woo his Western Iowa voters. When he was challenged in a primary, they rallied to his defense. He owned the libs, and delivered the votes.

Now, King’s brand of noxious politics has taken over the whole plot. His is a resistant hybrid of fear and nationalism now deeply rooted in the GOP’s Trumpian brand.

Constituents who attended King’s January 26 town hall in O’Brien County proved Dorman right by overwhelmingly supporting the incumbent. One man thanked King for what he’s done for “the white, European man” and “the values on which this country was built.” Gavin Aronsen wrote the most thorough account for the Iowa Informer. The Associated Press and Des Moines Register articles contained more revealing moments. The Register’s Robin Opsahl fact-checked some of King’s claims about immigration.

Overcoming that mentality will be a challenge for King’s Republican opponents. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Feenstra abandon his Congressional bid early next year for the safer bet of another term representing Iowa Senate district 2.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • "Republicans hoping King won’t drag down the rest of the GOP ticket in 2020..."

    “…would do better to convince him to retire.”

    That’s why some Iowans don’t want him to retire. Not only is he a drag and an embarrassment for national Republicans and some Republican-leaning organizations in Iowa, he would be vulnerable in a general election, as the last election showed.