IA-04: Bob Vander Plaats adds to bad news piling up for Steve King (updated)

One of Iowa’s most prominent social conservatives has compounded U.S. Representative Steve King’s political problems.

Bob Vander Plaats worked closely with King during the 2010 campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices, and the two were among Senator Ted Cruz’s top Iowa supporters before the 2016 caucuses.

But Vander Plaats just endorsed King’s leading GOP primary rival.

State Senator Randy Feenstra’s campaign released this statement on July 18.

“I am pleased to announce my endorsement of Senator Randy Feenstra in his campaign for the Republican nomination for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. Randy is a man of integrity who is guided by his faith and someone Iowans’ can trust to faithfully represent them in Congress. As a State Senator he has defended Christian values, protected the unborn and stood tall against the progressive agenda in Des Moines that would undermine religious liberty, sanctity of human life, and our constitutional freedoms.”

“Randy teamed with Governor Reynolds to pass the largest income tax cut in Iowa history, protected our 2nd Amendment rights and supported our family farmers. Randy is a proven conservative who has long record of delivering results for Iowa. He’ll do the same in Washington as our next Congressman and that’s why I encourage voters across the 4th District to vote for Randy Feenstra in the 2020 republican primary.”

“Note of emphasis: This endorsement is personal only and not on behalf of The FAMiLY LEADER Ministry where I serve as President and CEO.” -Bob Vander Plaats

Drew Zahn, communications director for The FAMiLY Leader, told Bleeding Heartland the organization’s “plan at this time is not to endorse in the U.S. congressional primaries.” Multiple Republicans are seeking the nomination in Iowa’s other U.S. House districts.

Vander Plaats dropped the hammer three days after the latest campaign finance reports showed King’s campaign running on fumes, with only $18,385.34 in the bank as of June 30. The incumbent spends about $8,000 a month on salaries for his son and daughter-in-law, who have long been his main campaign staffers.

I’ve argued King is heavily favored to win the 2020 primary, given the splintered opposition and the reality that many rank and file Republicans share King’s bigoted views. The incumbent seems to be getting a favorable response and mostly good local press from his town hall meetings.

Meanwhile, Feenstra is little-known outside his state Senate district and inexperienced as a candidate, having never faced an opponent in any election. I felt it would be easy for King to caricature his main Republican rival as a creature of power-brokers in Des Moines and Washington, DC.

Vander Plaats changes that equation. He spent most of his life in northwest Iowa and has never been the GOP establishment’s favorite. On the contrary–big donors like Bruce Rastetter worked hard to bring Terry Branstad out of retirement when Vander Plaats was the front-runner to be nominated for governor in 2010. (I still believe Branstad is the only person who could have beaten Vander Plaats in that primary, and he didn’t win it by much, even with an assist from Rod Roberts.)

Vander Plaats spoke at a fundraiser for Feenstra at Rastetter’s house on July 18, Craig Robinson posted on Twitter. But he’s much more valuable to the challenger as a messenger to social conservatives, who may feel disaffected from Republican insiders.

King still has some advantages of incumbency. He’s universally known among likely GOP primary voters. His Congressional office continues to fund a town hall series that has brought him to 23 of his district’s 39 counties, counting planned meetings in Ames and Harlan on July 19. He could get mileage out of his narrative that he has been unfairly smeared for telling the truth.

Today King filmed a video pushing one of his favorite themes: “lax immigration enforcement” causes Americans to be murdered.

“There are thousands of graves across this countryside that are there because we didn’t enforce immigration law. If they are unlawfully present in America, and we enforce the law, they are not there to kill Americans or any of God’s children that would exist here in the United States.” […]

It’s a sad day. We’re at this place because of the politics that have been pulling us apart in this country, the people who just reject the Rule of Law. Donald Trump was elected because he stood up and said, ‘I will defend the Rule of Law, I will secure the border, I will build a wall, and we’ll enforce immigration law across this country’.”

This message will likely resonate with many conservatives, and King could win the 2020 primary with less than 50 percent of the vote, if Feenstra has to compete against other Republicans for the anti-King vote.

But even with high name ID and a relatively sympathetic base, it costs money to run a successful district-wide race. When King felt threatened in 2012, he hired capable professionals with ties to then Governor Branstad to run his campaign. That’s not an option now, since Branstad and his key allies are in Feenstra’s camp.

If King can’t ramp up his fundraising, a new narrative could take shape: an out-of-touch, ineffective incumbent used up his resources keeping family members on the payroll.

Any comments about the IA-04 race are welcome in this thread.

P.S.–I’ve updated the table I created for this post a few months ago. Each county’s line contains the 2018 vote numbers for Congress and governor. Note that King underperformed Kim Reynolds across the board.

I listed the 23 counties where King has held or scheduled town halls at the top, in chronological order by date of the meeting. After the line break, other counties are in descending order from most to least ballots cast in last year’s general election.

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 4,281 853
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 2,702 2,359 3,327 1,715
Greene 1,999 1,945 2,326 1,675
Carroll 4,652 4,075 5,676 3,186
Webster 6,706 6,918 7,727 6,132
Woodbury 15,708 18,686 19,630 15,024
Sioux 10,284 3,682 12,840 1,955
Chickasaw 2,671 2,345 3,021 2,103
Franklin 2,229 1,717 2,647 1,379
Butler 3,675 2,199 3,952 2,064
Humboldt 2,481 1,465 2,797 1,200
Story 13,474 27,569 16,535 25,155
Shelby 3,070 1,817 3,537 1,450
Cerro Gordo 7,620 10,688 9,651 9,011
Boone 5,350 6,353 6,107 5,810
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
Grundy 3,540 1,996 3,785 1,875
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
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

UPDATE: After his town hall meeting in Ames on July 19, King told reporters, “I don’t have any doubt” that Vander Plaats is backing his opponent to settle a score from the 2010 Republican convention, Erin Murphy reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. King nominated Kim Reynolds (Terry Branstad’s choice) to be lieutenant governor, while hundreds of social conservative delegates voted to put Vander Plaats on the ticket. King added that he isn’t worried about losing support in among GOP primary voters.

“Those folks are pro-life, they’re pro-marriage, pro-Constitution, pro-rule of law, pro-fiscal responsibility, pro-Second Amendment, pro-repeal Obamacare. I mean, I own almost all those issues,” King said. “So why would they turn on somebody that’s delivered them everything they want? Unless they’re getting a little more than they want.” […]

In a text message response to The Gazette’s Des Moines Bureau, Vander Plaats said he is “thrilled” that Reynolds became lieutenant governor and has since become Iowa’s governor.

“So, no political payback,” Vander Plaats said in the text.

I’m fascinated that King took questions from reporters in Ames. The advisories about his town hall meetings invariably note near the bottom, “There will be no press availability prior to, or following, the events.” For King to alter that routine suggests that he recognized an urgent need to change the media narrative.

UPDATE: Murphy clarified, “It wasn’t really a formal/organized gaggle. It was more, I and a TV reporter camped in the right spot and he fielded two quick questions, one from each of us, as he exited. The whole thing lasted literally a minute.” They did well to get King to answer a couple of questions.

Fun fact: according to a Bleeding Heartland reader, Vander Plaats and Feenstra are both graduates of Western Christian High School in Hull (Sioux County).

  • This new endorsement also makes it even clearer to some of us...

    …that Randy Feenstra would be no improvement on Steve King. If anything, he could be worse, because he would be pushing for similar bad policies and casting similar bad votes, but more subtly and effectively. King is at least an embarrassment to many prominent Republicans, which has limited his ability to get bad things done.

    • What does "worse" mean?

      The worst outcome would be for the GOP to renominate an incumbent who is now famous only for his racist behavior, including his comments this week about a murder in Des Moines. He would be re-elected even though his committee work has been blocked by his own party.

      His defeat will be at least a speed bump on the Republican march to a Whites Only nation. At best it may herald a retreat from racism by other candidates elsewhere around the country.

      • I appreciate BH partly as a great place to learn different points of view...

        …so although I don’t agree on this issue, thank you very much for educating me.

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