If the best defense is a good offense, Representative Steve King is off to a solid start in his campaign against State Senator Rick Bertrand. King continues to define his opponent as a creature of wealthy operatives who offered money to several potential challengers.
The day Bertrand announced his candidacy, King released a statement claiming several people were "asked to challenge me in a primary by a couple of wealthy and petulant establishment Republicans who think they should own a Congressman."
"In every case but one, the answer was a resounding 'No,'" King said in the statement. "I’ve now been informed an offer was accepted.
"The others who received the call rejected substantial offers made to them. What was the offer my opponent accepted? He needs to answer this question to the citizens of the 4th congressional district."
King stayed on message last week, telling the Des Moines Register's Kathie Obradovich that "a few very rich and spoiled establishment operatives" were behind the GOP challenger in Iowa's fourth Congressional district.
Bertrand visited the Iowa State University campus on March 23 to make his pitch to college Republicans. If he is to have any prayer in this primary, he will need to run up the score in communities like Ames. Story County wasn't part of King's district during the last decade and has more moderate voters than GOP strongholds in northwest Iowa.
King was quick to strike back. Speaking to the Iowa State Daily's Alex Hanson on March 26,
King said he has had conversations with others who called him to say they were recruited to run for the seat, and they were offered hard money for their campaign and PAC money for a “scorched earth” campaign against him. He declined to give any specific names on who called him. [...]
“He will be obligated to answer the question, ‘What were you offered, and what did you accept?’” King said. “He has not answered that question, and I know what others were offered — I received their phone calls, and I take them at their word.”
King's phrasing is clever. "What were you offered, and what did you accept?" conveys a sense of personal corruption. Yet King was careful not to allege that Bertrand took a bribe to run for Congress. Rather, he claimed others offered the senator from Sioux City both campaign contributions and independent expenditures directed against the incumbent.
Nick Ryan, Iowa's premier dark money operative, was incensed by King's endorsement of Senator Ted Cruz for president. He openly put out feelers for a Republican to run against King, so it stands to reason that he talked with several potential candidates. Nor is it surprising that Bertrand or anyone considering a long-shot bid against an entrenched incumbent would touch base with major donors to see whether resources would be available. The fourth district encompasses 39 counties located in multiple media markets. A serious campaign can't be done on a shoestring.
King predicted in his interview with Hanson that the IA-04 race will "be a very nasty primary," because Ryan "doesn't know anything else, and he profits from money raised and money spent, so he gets a commission coming and going. He needed someone to attack in a primary or else his revenue stream would probably be a little short until the general election."
Indeed, Ryan has funded plenty of attack ads. He led the 501(c)4 group American Future Fund, which spent millions against Congressional and presidential candidates during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.
It's fair to say Ryan has personally done well from his election work. During the 2012 presidential campaign, he left a position with Rick Santorum's campaign to form a super-PAC supporting the candidate. The super-PAC then spent more than $2 million on direct mail using Ryan's own company as a vendor.
To suggest Ryan "doesn't know anything" but negative campaigning is not quite right, though. As leader of the super-PAC supporting Mike Huckabee this presidential campaign, Ryan directed hundreds of thousands of dollars to direct mail and paid advertising promoting Huckabee. A smaller six-figure amount went toward mail or ads tearing down Huckabee's opponents.
Ryan responded by e-mail to Hanson,
"How disappointing and sad that Steve lashes out like this,” Ryan wrote. “I want a congressman that is positive, forward looking and puts his district first — not one that attacks his own constituents. In fact, I've never seen a congressman do that in either party. We can do better here in the Fourth District and that's why I will be voting for change and supporting Rick Bertrand." [...]
"Steve has called me many times and asked for money,” Ryan said. “[He] came to my office and wanted money. Wanted me to get others to give him money. And now he's just turned into this insult-driven person. I think Washington has gotten to him."
Bruce Rastetter, one of the largest donors to Iowa Republican candidates and a key financial supporter of political entities run by Ryan, confirmed on March 22 that he supports Bertrand. Two days later, during a taping of Iowa Public Television's "Iowa Press" program, Rastetter explained his decision:
I think the district needs a congressman who represents all constituents. [...] I think Steve has represented a variety of national issues, rather than being a congressman that's more intent on solving constituent problems, constituent issues, and also issues that are really important to the district, like what we saw on ethanol in the [Iowa] caucuses.
Rastetter has been a big player in Iowa's ethanol industry, and more ethanol is produced in IA-04 than in any other Congressional district. His depiction of Bertrand as more responsive to the needs of the district echoes the way Bertrand has framed his campaign in interviews with Iowa journalists.
When Radio Iowa's O. Kay Henderson asked Rastetter if he had recruited Bertrand to run against King, Rastetter replied,
If someone tells you they're interested, and you think that they'd make a great congressman, then you--when you tell them you'd support them, I would guess whether you call that recruiting or whether you call that encouraging, I believe in helping principled people win.
King's come-out-swinging approach may be a sign the incumbent is worried Bertrand could gain traction. In contrast, Representative Dave Loebsack barely acknowledged State Senator Joe Seng's 2012 campaign for the Democratic nomination in Iowa's second Congressional district, other than taking a few shots at Seng in fundraising e-mails.
On the other hand, King is known for his combative approach to politics. He has previously said his attention-getting comments are "weighed ahead of time, never off the cuff." That appears to be the case here. A casual listener might receive the message that Bertrand is bought and paid for, even though King was technically talking about Bertrand being "offered" campaign funding. Choosing words carefully is wise, since Bertrand has sued for defamation over campaign attacks before.
I'm curious to see whether any of these unnamed Republicans will come forward to back up King's claims about being offered financial support for a Congressional race.