Iowa Rep. Steve King facing toughest primary yet

Groups worry King could hurt Ernst, back his opponent

Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King is facing a competitive primary race Tuesday, with outside groups spending big on behalf of state Sen. Randy Feenstra. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King is facing a competitive primary race Tuesday, with outside groups spending big on behalf of state Sen. Randy Feenstra. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 27, 2020 at 8:00am

Rep. Steve King reminded those watching a virtual candidate forum on Facebook on Saturday that he has never lost a race. But that could change next week.

While it’s rare for incumbents to lose primaries, the Iowa Republican is facing a close race against state Sen. Randy Feenstra, who has outraised him and has help from outside groups ahead of Tuesday’s primary. King has a history of making controversial and racist comments, but he’s in trouble this year because his colleagues decided to punish him.

House Republicans stripped him of his committee assignments last year after he questioned when terms like “white supremacist” became offensive, and Feenstra and his allies have emphasized King’s loss of influence in their closing messages to voters. Outside groups involved in the race have an additional motive: making sure King doesn’t become a drag on other Iowa Republicans, especially Sen. Joni Ernst, in November.

“It’s the most contested primary we’ve seen in this district since redistricting,” said Story County GOP Chairman Brett Barker, who is neutral in the race.

A congressman without committees

King appeared vulnerable to a primary challenge after Democrat J.D. Scholten came close to defeating him in the rural 4th District in 2018.

“When Congressman King won this district by just 3 points in 2018, after President [Donald] Trump won it by nearly 30, it became clear that he could lose this seat and cost our voice in Congress,” said Feenstra, who was not available for an interview but responded to questions via email. King’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Three other Republicans are also challenging King, but Feenstra is the top contender. He outraised the primary field, and he’s backed by such prominent Iowa Republicans as former Gov. Terry Branstad and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.

The day after Feenstra launched his campaign in January 2019, The New York Times published a story in which King said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” The House Republican Steering Committee then unanimously decided not to allow King to sit on committees.

That’s what King’s opponents have been emphasizing in the primary, as opposed to the comments that precipitated the punishment.

“Everybody knows those [comments], and they probably ignore most of them. But to hit him on the representation side, I thought, was much more powerful,” said Sarah Chamberlain, treasurer of Defending Main Street, a super PAC that has spent $100,000 on a dozen mail pieces and voter outreach.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent $200,000 on the race, noted in a recent ad that King was removed from the Agriculture Committee, which could be a problem for voters in the rural district.

The chamber’s senior political strategist, Scott Reed, said the group recognizes King has made “some knucklehead comments,” but it emphasized King’s absence from committees because “we’re focused on economic growth and job creation. That’s what our members care about.”

King insisted at Saturday’s virtual forum that the Steering Committee would vote to reinstate him if it met this week. He held up a list of the committee’s members and said he’s found only three who would vote against him. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said King could make his case to the Steering Committee if he wins reelection.

Down to the wire

In the meantime, King doesn’t have the campaign funds to defend himself on the airwaves. As of May 13, his campaign had $32,000 in the bank, while Feenstra had $126,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Three other Republicans are also running — former state Rep. Jeremy Taylor, former Irwin Mayor Bret Richards and real estate developer Steve Reeder. If no candidate receives more than 35 percent of the vote, the nominee would be chosen at a party convention. But most operatives expect the race to be decided Tuesday, noting that internal polls released by the Feenstra campaign have shown Feenstra and King in the high 30s and low 40s.

Feenstra and his allies are expecting turnout to be higher for the June 2 primary because absentee ballot applications were mailed to every registered voter. Iowa election officials are encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots and avoid voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic. Ballots must be postmarked by Monday.

More than 69,000 Republicans have requested absentee ballots in the 4th District, and more than 40,000 have been returned. Two years ago, a total of 39,000 votes were cast in the 4th District GOP primary. Feenstra’s allies believe higher turnout will hurt King.

“The hardcore King people are going to vote, so if we can expand it and get more people to vote, we hope that will get Randy up over the top,” Chamberlain said.

Reed, however, noted that King will still be difficult to beat. First elected to Congress in 2002, he is well known and has a committed base of supporters.

“This is an uphill battle,” Reed said.

Looking toward November

Reed and Chamberlain said their groups decided to take on that battle because it could help Ernst, who is running for a second term. To win statewide in Iowa, Republicans need to widen their margins in rural parts of the state, including the 4th District.

Reed said the potential impact on the Senate race was the “No. 1 reason” the chamber decided to get involved in King’s primary.

“Our concern is that if King was the nominee, he would potentially pull her down,” he said. “Ernst needs to get every vote in rural Iowa that she can.”

Chamberlain said if King were the nominee, “the Democrats will spend money and try to take [him] out, which only hurts Joni Ernst.”

Republicans believe Scholten, who is running again and has already raised nearly $1.2 million, will have a much more challenging race against a less controversial Republican. Scholten spokeswoman Lauren McIlvaine said in a statement that regardless of the GOP nominee, the campaign “doesn’t write off a single voter.”

Feenstra did not directly answer whether King’s potential impact on other Republicans on the ballot, including Ernst, factored into his decision to run.

“I decided to run because we need to nominate a conservative that will win in November and deliver conservative results once elected,” he said.

Chris Marquette contributed to this report.