Controversial Republican Congressman Steve King defeated in Iowa primary

Congressman Steve King was defeated Tuesday night in his bid for a tenth term, losing the Republican primary to Iowa State Senator Randy Feenstra, the Associated Press projects. Many Republicans declined to back King during the primary cycle. 

King, who was first elected to Congress in 2002, has drawn national scrutiny for years for his controversial remarks on issues such as immigrationabortion and saying it’s “not objectively true” to consider every culture equal. But King’s opponents didn’t focus on that. Instead, they honed in on his waning influence in Washington. 

A January 2019 interview with The New York Times cost King his committee assignments after his comments about white nationalism and white supremacy drew bipartisan condemnation. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King told The New York Times. 

Republicans who worked to unseat King jumped on his lack of a committee assignment, saying he doesn’t have sway in Washington and can’t deliver for his constituents. King claimed that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy would advocate for a return to his committee assignments, but McCarthy denied this and left the decision up to the Steering Committee. 

Feenstra’s campaign manager tweeted a photo on Tuesday night showing Feenstra on the phone with McCarthy and wrote in the caption, “Randy is ready to get to work.”

“I’ve said from day one that Iowans deserve a proven, effective conservative leader that will deliver results,” Feenstra said in a video. “I promise you I will deliver results in Congress.”

In a video posted on Facebook, King thanked his supporters, saying he conceded the race to Feenstra and “pointed out that there’s some powerful elements in the swamp that he’s going to have an awfully hard time pushing back against.”

Iowa Rep. Steve King
Iowa Rep. Steve King speaks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, Sept. 19, 2015.

Brian Frank / REUTERS

“I would also point out that of all of the four opponents that I’ve had in this race, not one of them has raised an issue with a single vote I’ve put up or a single statement that I have made, and that’s pretty interesting when you think of nearly 18 years in the United States Congress,” King said. “This comes from an effort to push out the strongest voice for full spectrum constitutional Christian conservatism that existed in the United States Congress.”

Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel congratulated Feenstra in a tweet, and said King’s “white supremacist rhetoric is totally inconsistent with the Republican Party, and I’m glad Iowa Republicans rejected him at the ballot box.”

King has comfortably held his seat since 2002, often winning his races by double-digit margins. But King’s three-point win in 2018 over first-time candidate, Democrat J.D. Scholten, was the closest general election challenge King faced in the reliably Republican district. 

Scholten is running again and some Republicans worried that if King was the nominee, it could give Democrats a chance to pick up a seat in a district where President Trump won by 27 points in 2016.  In a statement Tuesday night, Scholten said his campaign “defeated Steve King.”

“Our campaign made King vulnerable and the swamp of corporate-lobbyists in D.C. that now supports Randy Feenstra had easy pickings,” Scholten’s statement added. “King’s defeat tonight marks a victory for all of us, and now we’re pushing forward to November.”

The cash-strapped King had only about $32,000 on hand, according to the latest FEC filings, compared to Feenstra’s $126,000. Feenstra spent more than $265,000 on television advertisements in the race, according to Kantar/CMAG data. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce invested $200,000 for advertisements, while other outside groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition-Political Action Committee, Priorities for Iowa and the Defending Main Street super PAC also flooded the race with money going after King. 

Sarah Chamberlain, the Defending Main Street’s treasurer, said they identified Feenstra as a good fit for the district early and brought him into their training school. Chamberlain called the mix of Feenstra as a candidate and King’s lack of clout “almost a perfect storm.”

“I think educating the people of Iowa that [King] cannot vote in committees, is huge. I don’t think a lot of people really focused on the real disadvantage of that. It’s an agricultural district, and he doesn’t sit on the Ag committee. So he doesn’t write bills, he can only vote for them on the floor. That’s a problem,” she said, adding that they’ll continue to support Feenstra in the general election. 

King has said his white nationalist comments in The New York Times were misquoted and “weaponizing” of the term. At a debate a week before the election, King said the backlash and his removal were “ginned up” by the “Never Trumpers.” On Election Day he tweeted, “Let’s tell the Never-Trumpers We the People decide who represents us in Congress!”

There was a surge in absentee voting in the district and around Iowa compared to previous primaries after Iowa’s Secretary of State mailed voters absentee ballot request forms due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 61,000 Republicans voted absentee in the district, compared to about 6,300 who voted absentee during the 2018 primary.

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