IA-04: Steve King doesn't seem worried--or does he?

U.S. Representative Steve King’s clout has taken big hits lately. He won his ninth term in Congress by only a 3.3 percent margin in Iowa’s most conservative district (partisan voter index of R+11). Once-staunch allies like Governor Kim Reynolds sought to distance themselves from his toxic racism. The leader of his caucus stripped him of all House committee assignments.

Three other Republicans announced plans to seek the 2020 nomination in the fourth district, and campaign finance reports filed on April 15 confirmed that many heavy hitters are backing King’s best-known challenger, State Senator Randy Feenstra.

The incumbent’s recent fundraising and campaign spending would suggest that he’s not concerned about his re-election prospects.

But in other ways, King is working diligently to maintain support among the conservatives he needs to continue his political career. Fortunately for him, taxpayers are bankrolling much of that outreach.


King’s never been a strong fundraiser, other than in 2012, when he faced Christie Vilsack in a substantially redrawn district. The Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets database shows that King raised and spent more than $3.7 million for his 2012 re-election bid, far more than he had spent on any previous Congressional race. He spent less than $1 million during the 2018 election cycle, when Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten spent more than $3 million.

Even by King’s standards, his first-quarter 2019 filing with the Federal Election Commission was embarrassing. His campaign reported $61,666.52 in contributions, a remarkably low number for an entrenched Congressional incumbent. Most of the money came from individuals; $37,081.52 was unitemized (gifts of less than $200) and $20,585.00 represented itemized contributions. Only one donor maxed out to King, and a handful of others (including Don Lamberti) gave $2,000 or more. Two political action committees affiliated with other far-right House Republicans each gave $2,000.

I’ve heard of high burn rates, but I can’t recall seeing an incumbent’s campaign spend more than it raised this early in an election cycle. King reported $68,476.99 in expenditures during the first three months of the year. Wages for his son and daughter-in-law, Jeff and Lindsay King, were the largest expense. As has been his practice every cycle but 2012–when he hired pros to manage his race against Vilsack–King has relied primarily on relatives to run his campaigns.

King ended the quarter with just $18,385.34 cash on hand. I wonder whether any House members seeking re-election have less money in the bank.

Feenstra filed a more impressive FEC report: $260,442 in contributions, of which $252,942.00 came from individuals and $7,500 came from three corporate PACs.

Noteworthy donors to Feenstra included:

  • former Governor Terry Branstad ($1,000)
  • longtime power-broker Doug Gross ($1,000)
  • former State Senator Rick Bertrand, who challenged King in the 2016 primary ($5,600)
  • Senate President Charles Schneider ($250)
  • State Senator Ken Rozenboom ($1,000)
  • State Senator Michael Breitbach ($250)
  • State Senator Dan Zumbach ($250)
  • former senior Iowa Senate GOP staffer Ed Failor, Jr. ($250)
  • GOP consultant David Kochel ($500)
  • self-promoting conservative millennial Ben Shapiro ($2,800)
  • former state legislator Steve Sukup ($1,000)
  • former U.S. Representative Tom Tauke ($2,800)

Many “usual suspect” Iowa GOP donors maxed out to Feenstra, such as Joe Crookham, Kyle Krause, and John Smith. Oddly, Bruce Rastetter (a prominent supporter of Bertrand in the 2016 primary) has not donated yet.

Feenstra’s campaign spent $20,631.42 during the first quarter and reported $239,683.77 cash on hand as of March 31.

Worth noting: many contributors gave Feenstra more than the $2,800 maximum amount for a primary election. By my count, $42,850 in his campaign account is restricted for use during the 2020 general election, meaning Feenstra can’t spend it to win the primary and will have to refund it if he does not win the nomination. That leaves the challenger with nearly $197,000 available, more than ten times King’s cash on hand.

Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor reported raising $57,728.85, all from individuals. Regina Roth, who along with her husband has been a major donor to many Iowa Republican candidates, gave Taylor $2,700. The campaign spent $7,663.58 during the first quarter, leaving $50,065.27 cash on hand. Taylor can spend all of that before the primary election.

UPDATE: Gavin Aronsen posted a more comprehensive look at the candidates’ fundraising at Iowa Informer, with a focus on former King donors who have given to either Feenstra or Taylor this year. A source in Sioux City speculates that some of Taylor’s contributors may be King loyalists who want to split the opposition vote in the primary.

The other declared Republican candidate in IA-04 is Bret Richards, an Army veteran and former business owner. FEC records show Richards loaned his campaign $48,000, donated $2,145 of his own funds, and raised $17,556.05 from other contributors, mostly relatives. The campaign spent $28,416.96 during the reporting period, including $22,500 for “market testing,” and had $37,139.09 cash on hand as of March 31.

That’s right: not one, not two, but all three Republican challengers ended the first quarter with more cash on hand than the nine-term incumbent.

Will it matter? Feenstra supporter Kochel put his best spin on the numbers.

Having a few hundred more donors doesn’t strike me as significant, given that 45,000 people cast ballots in the 2016 primary to represent IA-04. If two or three challengers file, King can win the nomination with only a plurality of votes.

Even if Feenstra scares off the competition and manages to position himself as King’s sole rival, he will need to work hard and spend heavily just to raise his name ID. The 39 counties in IA-04 span a huge geographical area and six media markets. Feenstra is barely known outside his own Iowa Senate district, and he is the opposite of battle-tested, having never faced a competitive primary or general election.

The irony is that Feenstra’s financial advantage could play into King’s preferred narrative: he is the brave truth-teller, while his critics are part of the politically correct establishment in Des Moines and Washington, DC. It’s a pretty good shtick for conservatives, who will cast most of the votes in the Republican primary. King is already taking that message on the road.


Scholten frequently criticized King last year for not showing up around the district. Whereas the Democratic nominee held at least three public events in each IA-04 county, the incumbent was less accessible to constituents.

King’s polling numbers declined in October as his bigotry and links to racist politicians in other countries made national headlines, and Scholten and an outside group were running unanswered television commercials. The incumbent had to scramble to get a recycled spot from 2014 on the air for the last few days before the election. In a district with 70,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, King ended up winning by 157,676 votes to 147,246 (50.3 percent to 47.0 percent).

Click on any county on this interactive map to see how IA-04 residents voted for Congress and governor in 2018. King underperformed everywhere, receiving about 30,000 fewer votes than Reynolds district-wide.

County Name

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

black: King above 70% of vote

maroon: King between 60% and 70%

red: King between 50% and 60%

pink: King won with less than 50%

light blue: Scholten won with less than 50%

blue: Scholten between 50% and 60%

dark blue: Scholten above 60%

King got the wake-up call. In January, his Congressional office announced a planned series of town hall meetings in every IA-04 county. While Feenstra has been tied up in Des Moines during the legislative session, King has held eleven town halls and scheduled his twelfth for April 23.

Since these are official events, taxpayers foot the bill. GOP rivals can’t complain, because Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst use public funds for similar purposes. It’s a major advantage for incumbents.

Reporters are allowed to observe the meetings, but King doesn’t take questions from the press before or after. For the most part, he has basked in the approval of friendly audiences, resulting in generally positive media coverage.

So far, King’s tour has taken him to heavily Republican counties where he needs to do well in next year’s primary.

O’Brien County (January 26)–part of Feenstra’s Iowa Senate district
Lyon County (February 18)
Ida County (February 23)
Harrison County (March 1)
Calhoun County (March 16)
Kossuth County (March 19)
Crawford County (March 21)
Plymouth County (April 6)–a sliver of this county is in Feenstra’s district
Hancock County (April 15)
Hamilton County (April 15)
Pocahontas County (April 17)
Cherokee County (scheduled for April 23)–part of Feenstra’s district

This table shows the same 2018 vote numbers you can find on the map above. I listed the counties where King has held town halls at the top. After the line break, other counties are in descending order from most to least ballots cast in the general election. UPDATE: King’s Congressional office announced on April 22 that he will hold a town hall in Greene County on April 25, so I moved Greene up to the top section of the table. Reynolds carried that county by a comfortable margin of nearly 16 points, while King led Scholten by just 1.4 points.

Votes for Congress and governor in IA-04 counties, 2018
County King votes Scholten votes Reynolds votes Hubbell votes
O’Brien 3,795 1,916 4,472 1,296
Lyon 3,716 1,355 4,291 853
Ida 1,757 1,117 2,196 713
Harrison 3,559 2,237 3,931 1,912
Calhoun 2,318 1,842 2,710 1,464
Kossuth 3,942 3,171 4,642 2,588
Crawford 3,025 2,248 3,579 1,735
Plymouth 6,503 4,084 7,941 2,717
Hancock 2,765 1,843 3,257 1,464
Hamilton 3,215 2,942 3,703 2,560
Pocahontas 1,831 1,201 2,091 962
Cherokee 2,701 2,359 3,327 1,715
Story 13,474 27,569 16,535 25,155
Woodbury 15,708 18,686 19,630 15,024
Cerro Gordo 7,620 10,688 9,651 9,011
Webster 6,706 6,918 7,727 6,132
Sioux 10,284 3,682 12,840 1,955
Boone 5,350 6,353 6,107 5,810
Carroll 4,652 4,075 5,676 3,186
Dickinson 4,676 3,931 5,564 3,134
Hardin 3,917 3,027 4,407 2,689
Clay 3,555 3,125 4,364 2,417
Buena Vista 3,228 3,178 3,771 2,649
Floyd 2,841 3,205 3,366 2,812
Butler 3,675 2,199 3,952 2,064
Grundy 3,540 1,996 3,785 1,875
Chickasaw 2,671 2,345 3,021 2,103
Shelby 3,070 1,817 3,537 1,450
Wright 2,650 2,085 3,049 1,788
Winnebago 2,233 2,181 2,726 1,788
Sac 2,549 1,686 2,965 1,253
Greene 1,999 1,945 2,326 1,675
Franklin 2,229 1,717 2,647 1,379
Humboldt 2,481 1,465 2,797 1,200
Monona 2,055 1,671 2,556 1,171
Palo Alto 1,925 1,701 2,320 1,398
Emmet 1,879 1,743 2,298 1,383
Audubon 1,378 1,234 1,658 990
Osceola 1,663 709 1,922 481
District-wide 157,676 147,246 187,327 121,951

King remains popular among rank and file Republicans, and his ability to connect with voters in every county, at taxpayer expense, will go a long way toward neutralizing Feenstra’s financial advantage in the coming months. Once the legislature wraps up its work for the year, Feenstra will have to use campaign funds for travel and other event costs as he introduces himself to Republican voters.

I still see the primary as King’s to lose.

Final note: Branstad’s donation to Feenstra generated some media coverage and reflects quite a shift for a guy who called King “one of my favorite people” in a 2012 radio commercial. But even when Branstad was the sitting governor, his endorsement was no guarantee of success in a GOP primary.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin