Iowa’s King is dethroned

Toppling a nine term incumbent is not so easy. Randy Feenstra just did it (jns.org).

The advantage of incumbency is so strong, it’s rare for a congressional primary to have any real drama. And yet, there were true fireworks in Iowa’s 4th District last week as Republican voters decided to ditch Rep. Steve King, their representative for the last nine terms. 

Four Republicans vied to replace King in the ruby-red district. They might have split the vote and effectively reelected King. However, state Sen. Randy Feenstra managed to earn more than 45% of the vote, winning the race decisively. 

That outcome was anything but certain. The scant polling that existed was fairly tight and inconclusive in the run-up to the June 2 election. As the race unfolded, it also looked like a test case for whether grassroots Republican voters care who the Washington Republican establishment thinks is suitable to serve in Congress. 

Congressional Republicans made it clear that they wanted King gone last year. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stripped King of his House committee assignments after King defended white supremacy in New York Times interview, which followed on a history of similar troubling incidents. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Main Street Partnership PAC, and the Republican Jewish Coalition all engaged in this race, vocally and unapologetically opposing King.

But did Iowa Republicans see things the same way? After all, these “Iowa nice” voters had repeatedly sent someone decidedly less nice to Washington to speak on their behalf. 

Christopher Hull, former King chief of staff and the author of Grassroots Rules: How the Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents, explained King’s appeal: “He’s maybe the strongest individual I know in terms of his spine. … He has steel-reinforced concrete for a spine; he doesn’t back down when you press on him.” King also “reflexively tries to clothe in expressive language the truths he sees that nobody wants to say out loud and that militate against the narratives that the media and the establishment portion of the party don’t want to talk about,” such as, “Immigration doesn’t always make us stronger.”

Hull continued: “Sometimes you don’t want a diplomat. … There’s a whole group of Trump and Steve [King] supporters who want them to go and punch the bad guy in the eye. The bad guy’s big and mean and doing a lot of bad things, and nobody will call him out. But there are some people who are characteristically fighters, and Steve’s one of those, and Trump is, too. It’s important to stipulate that some people are voting for that, not in spite of it.” 

There is undoubtedly a portion of Iowa’s electorate that is bonded to King. Even after a series of public controversies and being stripped of his committee positions, meaning he lost much of his ability to represent his constituents effectively, 36% of Republican primary voters chose to stick with King. 

However, nearly two-thirds of voters were ready to move on. King was clearly weaker than he had been previously. To wit, in 2018, King only managed to eke out a 3-point victory over Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten in a district that chose President Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 27%. 

That near miss came after a series of controversies. In 2012, King compared immigrants to dogs. In 2016, King compared Mexican immigrants to “dirt,” and then lied about it, despite the remark being caught on audio. And in 2018, King made news for endorsing a white supremacist for mayor of Toronto. It wasn’t until after his race against Scholten, though, that King mused to the New York Times in January 2019, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” It was that interview that finally lost King his committeeships. 

So, how did Feenstra cement his win? Primarily, he focused on delivering for Iowans. When I asked Feenstra last month why voters should choose him, he replied, “After nearly 20 years in Congress, Steve King has passed only one bill, and it was to rename a post office. The farmers, families, and job creators deserve an effective conservative congressman they can count on, and the president deserves an ally he can trust to deliver. Congressman King simply can’t deliver anymore.” Feenstra also noted that he was “the only candidate in the race with a proven record of delivering pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-taxpayer victories for Iowans.” In other words, Feenstra won by focusing on how he would help voters by representing them on the issues that most matter to them and casting King as ineffective. 

Meanwhile, outside groups fought in parallel. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican Main Street Partnership PAC didn’t respond to requests for comment. However, a spokesman for the Republican Jewish Coalition said the group’s PAC raised over $40,000 from members and that the group recruited “hundreds of grassroots volunteers and supporters from across the country [that] made thousands of Jewish outreach GOTV calls and sent thousands of peer-to-peer text messages to encourage voters in IA-04 to support Randy Feenstra for Congress [and] to unseat disgraced Rep. Steve King.” 

The group’s messaging varied from Feenstra’s in the sense that it focused not only on King losing his committee assignments but also on his extremism. The group’s spokesman said, “Steve King is a stain on the Republican Party: He supported white supremacist candidates and even told the New York Times he thought white nationalism and white supremacy are inoffensive.” 

King derided Feenstra as “a RINO candidate who is funded by secretive PACs and donors that support anti-gun legislation” in a fundraising email the Saturday before the election. But nearly half of voters still chose Feenstra. Iowa-based political strategist John Stineman observed that both major contenders “won rural counties,” votes in Feenstra’s state Senate district delivered nearly all of his winning margin numerically speaking, and that “the race was won in the far northwest pocket of the district,” which is the most conservative area of the state. Stineman further noted: 

“The penetrating and consistent message that King was not able to be an effective member of Congress for the district provided voters the opportunity to vote for an alternative without having to render a final judgment on their opinion of him (many have known him a long time). Obviously, those Republicans pining for King’s defeat because of his controversial comments were already motivated.” 

Stineman continued: “The fact that 64% of Republicans in the most conservative district in the state chose to vote for someone other than King speaks volumes about the whipsaw that hit him between his lack of effectiveness and his controversial comments. The fact that Feenstra posted a 10-point win in a crowded field is a testament to the campaign he ran and the resources he was able to put behind it.” 

So, Feenstra was a good fit for the district and ran an effective campaign. Without that, outside support wouldn’t have helped nearly as much. But as Stineman underscored, in the end, “the grassroots left King. Nearly 2 out of 3 Republican voters chose someone else.” 

And perhaps therein lies a lesson for Republican elected officials and other members of the party’s establishment wing. Countless obituaries were written for the GOP establishment after Trump’s success in 2016 showed them to be less Great Oz and more man behind the curtain. But perhaps some of those elegies were too hasty. This race shows that when the many people behind that curtain not only work together but also make an effort to persuade the grassroots that a particular change is in everyone’s best interest, it is possible to dethrone even a King.

This article appeared in The Washington Examiner magazine.

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