As Rep. Steve King seeks to raise his national profile, the Iowa Republican is looking to Sen. Jim DeMint to help boost his influence in conservative circles.
King is no match in national name recognition or fundraising ability for his closest House ally, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). And the anti-immigration crusader was disappointed earlier this year when he wasn’t chosen to chair the Judiciary Committee subpanel that handles the issue. But King’s cross-Dome coordination with DeMint, another favorite among conservatives, has helped the Iowan lay the groundwork he hopes will make him more influential in his state’s caucuses next year.
“What Steve and I are trying to do is encourage people, as we look at our presidential candidates, not to just look at personalities or how well they speak, but decide really what they stand for,” the South Carolina Republican said in an interview. “Steve wants to be a part of that debate and I do too, and a good place to start is Iowa.”
King asked DeMint to deliver the keynote address at a daylong conference in Des Moines next month sponsored by his Conservative Principles political action committee. King, whose western Iowa district is a trove of GOP votes, launched the event as a way of “linking all early states in the nomination process” according to a flier publicizing the March 26 gathering. A handful of GOP presidential hopefuls, including former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), are expected to attend.
The five-term lawmaker has also sought DeMint’s help on the legislative front this year. King asked DeMint to help rally support for his proposal to defund the health care reform law. Although King’s original proposal was rejected by the Rules Committee, he ultimately prevailed with two narrow amendments that, if passed in the Senate, would achieve the same goal of halting implementation of the health care overhaul.
King pursued his approach even as a similar measure was being offered by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), whose Appropriations subcommittee controls funding for the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I think the point before the rules committee was the low point, and a lot of good work got done after that,” King said, adding that he worked with Rehberg on his amendment.
Before winning on the House floor, King had been hoping his developing alliance with DeMint would give him leverage.
“I think the voice of Jim DeMint on the other side is really important because some said that my amendment would be difficult to take up in the Senate, that they would never consider it and take it up,” King said before the CR vote. “Well that’s not true, and Jim DeMint can tell you that. He can say, ‘Send it, I welcome it.’ That’s a useful thing.”
King has said he is not interested in running for higher office, unlike Bachmann, who is publicly toying with the idea. Instead, he is looking to gain stature as a kingmaker in his influential home state.
So far, however, he has struggled in that role. He endorsed former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008; the one-time television star finished a distant third behind former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
King also sought to campaign for a host of GOP House candidates last cycle, but political aides said his requests often went unanswered. Indeed, freshman Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) canceled a joint fundraiser with King in June after King told a conservative radio host that President Barack Obama “has a default mechanism in him that breaks down the side of race on the side that favors the black person.”
“He’s put himself out there on the far right on a few issues that I think could potentially damage his credibility,” a GOP strategist said of King. “But with that said, he’s from the right state and the right area to have an impact on the national debate over the course of the next year.”
Still, the strategist cautioned, “He has an opportunity to earn some significant political capital, but the question is how effectively is he going to do it?”
DeMint isn’t the only high-profile conservative King has reached out to. King moved much of his Congressional office to the headquarters of the Conservative Political Action Conference two weeks ago “because that’s the networks we need to work in,” he said. He reached out to former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is mulling a presidential bid, seeking support for his health care amendment. King noted his push earned him some buzz in conservative media circles and sent a message to GOP leaders that his efforts should be taken seriously.
“I want to keep [leadership] interested,” King said. “I don’t want them to think that the best tactic is to try to marginalize me. I want them to take the political capital that I and the people I work with have and use it to reach a common cause.”
In that respect, King is taking a different tack than Bachmann or DeMint, who have almost nonexistent relationships with Congressional leaders and have opted instead for go-it-alone strategies. Still, King said he would continue to work with both of his conservative colleagues.
“If you look out there at the people who helped elect so many of us this year, they’re following Jim DeMint, who is standing strong, and they’re looking at all the things Michele Bachmann has done,” King said. “We believe in the same things, and together we can be effective.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.