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Rep. Steve King loses in Iowa primary after racist remarks erode GOP support

Rep. Steve King loses in Iowa primary after racist remarks erode GOP support
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Iowa Republicans voted Tuesday to end the long and divisive congressional career of Rep. Steve King, whose hard-right views on immigration and abortion became part of the GOP mainstream over two decades in the House but whose deliberately polarizing rhetoric ultimately became a liability for his party.

Support for King started to evaporate last year after he made racially offensive remarks that forced national Republicans to distance themselves from the conservative Iowa firebrand.

That gave an opening to State Sen. Randy Feenstra, who garnered support from national GOP groups and from some prominent Iowa conservatives who argued King undermined his influence in Washington with his drumbeat of provocative behavior.

I am truly humbled. Thank you to each and every person who supported us on this journey against all odds. You delivered. But tomorrow, it’s back to work. #ia04 pic.twitter.com/B0nCT7C9XI

“I am truly humbled. Thank you to each and every person who supported us on this journey against all odds. You delivered. But tomorrow, it’s back to work,” Feenstra said in a statement.

Iowa’s elections were among dozens of congressional primaries taking place amid a backdrop of a global pandemic, civil unrest and a national reckoning over racism and police violence in eight states and the District of Columbia. Several of the elections, which in some states include the presidential race, had been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was projected to win primaries in New Mexico, Montana, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, according to Edison Media Research, as he amasses delegates to secure the nomination.

The key issues in King’s race have been years in the making. He lost his House committee assignments in January 2019 after questioning in a New York Times interview why the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” should be considered offensive. It was perhaps the most egregious in a long record of pointed comments demeaning minorities, immigrants and multiculturalism, punctuated by dealings with far-right European activists.

Although Feenstra hesitated to attack King directly for his views, he was not shy about questioning his relevance in Washington — particularly after losing his seat on the House Agriculture Committee, an important sinecure for the rural western Iowa district.

“The 4th District needs a seat at the table, an effective conservative voice,” Feenstra said in a May 26 debate held by WHO-TV. “To me, this election is about real results, not campaign rhetoric. . . . Our district, our president deserves an effective conservative leader in Congress.”

The district is historically conservative, but the controversies swirling around King have taken a toll on his popularity. In 2016, he won by 22 percentage points over his Democratic opponent. In 2018, he beat first-time candidate J.D. Scholten by barely three points, and now Scholten is running again with a campaign war chest five times as large as that of any GOP candidate — and many prominent Republicans feared that King may not survive.

With King’s loss, two prominent nonpartisan forecasters — the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections — moved the race from “lean Republican” to “safe Republican,” indicating Feenstra should have no trouble dispatching Scholten in a district that voted for Donald Trump by 27 points in 2016.

Feenstra had raised about $926,000 to King’s $331,000 — a paltry sum for a nine-term incumbent in a competitive race. Meanwhile, Defending Main Street, a GOP super PAC affiliated with the moderate Main Street Partnership, spent $100,000 to oust King, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $200,000 more behind Feenstra.

But there have been notable changes of heart in Iowa, too. Among those who backed Feenstra was activist Bob Vander Plaats, a GOP political kingmaker in western Iowa who once was one of King’s staunchest allies. In an ad funded by the Priorities for Iowa super PAC, Vander Plaats said King was “no longer effective” in Washington — echoing Feenstra’s central campaign message.

“He can’t deliver for President Trump, and he can’t advance our conservative values,” he said. “Thankfully, Iowa has a better choice.”

King fought back, leveraging his high profile in the district and long record as an archconservative nemesis of immigration and abortion. In a recent Sioux City Journal op-ed, he called the primary race against Feenstra the “epicenter of the battle against the swamp,” labeling his opponents — and Feenstra’s backers — “billionaire coastal RINO-NeverTrumper, globalist, neocon elites.”

“This race is nationalized because I’m effective,” he wrote. “I have run to the sound of the guns in every important fight. I have walked towards the fire and through the fire. I’m deeply tempered by the experience. I can face the swamp down because we’re right and they’re wrong and they know it.”

Countering his loss of committee assignments, King claimed at a candidate forum last month that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., promised his “time for exoneration” would come if he’s reelected and his committee seats would be restored.

McCarthy denied any such promise, telling reporters last month: “Congressman King’s comments cannot be exonerated, and I never said that.”

U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during a weekly news conference May 28, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Craig Robinson, who runs the website IowaRepublican.com, said Feenstra offers the district everything King does as a conservative, but with no baggage.

“How much does the voter want to put up with? The activists like the guy who gets on talk radio and is fighting the good fight, but when you represent a district, there’s a lot of things that your district needs, and that’s where there’s an appetite to move on,” Robinson said.
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