The Republicans hoping to defeat white supremacist Rep. Steve King in Tuesday’s primary in Iowa all have similar arguments for why King doesn’t deserve a tenth term in Congress. He’s ineffective, they say. Too caustic. A political liability for the party.
What you won’t hear these Republicans argue is that King is racist.
The anti-King television ads currently bombarding voters in Iowa’s conservative 4th Congressional District make no mention of him endorsing white nationalist political candidates, or promoting neo-Nazis on Twitter, or talking about the Great Replacement conspiracy theory.
“Whatever you think of Steve King, it’s clear he’s no longer effective,” conservative evangelical Christian leader Bob Vander Plaats says at the beginning of one ad released earlier this month. “He can’t deliver for President Trump, and he can’t deliver conservative values.”
The ad — created by a PAC called Priorities for Iowa, run by the former chief of staff of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds — is part of a larger effort by a powerful coalition of GOP figures to oust King.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a handful of Republican members of the House, GOP operative Karl Rove, and an assortment of conservative groups and PACs have banded together to end King’s two-decade congressional career and install their preferred primary challenger, Randy Feenstra, a former state senator.
But this coordinated GOP effort — which polls show has a shot at succeeding — isn’t really marketing itself as a principled rebuke of King’s bigotry. Neither Feenstra or most of his Republican backers call King racist in public.
When they argue King is ineffective, pointing to how GOP leadership stripped him of his committee assignments, they don’t dwell on why GOP leadership took those committee seats away in the first place: as punishment for comments King made condoning white supremacy.
Tuesday’s primary will occur during a period of heightened attention on white supremacy’s role in American life. Protesters in Minneapolis rose up against their police department this week, taking over a precinct building and burning it to the ground, while demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, have stretched over several days. President Donald Trump, the leader of the GOP, referred to the demonstrators as “Thugs.”
Many Iowa voters will vote via absentee ballot, or if they vote in person, will do so wearing a mask, precautions meant to guard against the further spread of the coronavirus, which has devastated the U.S. after missteps by the White House, killing a disproportionate number of Black and brown Americans.
According to Pat Rynard, managing editor at the news site Iowa Starting Line, avoiding discussions of white supremacy in the GOP effort to oust King is part of a deliberate strategy.
“They won’t say it publicly, but you talk to a lot of Republicans in this state privately, and they do think he’s a racist,” Rynard told HuffPost. “They’re fed up with it. They just don’t have the guts to say it that much in person because they know there’s enough Republican voters who either agree with [King] or think that aspect of King is overhyped.”
Another campaign ad, this one produced by a pro-Feenstra PAC called Iowa Four, focuses on an alleged rift between King and Trump, who have had a close relationship.
“President Trump stopped allowing Steve King on Air Force One,” the narrator’s voice states, referring to an incident last year — a few months after King lost his committee seats — when the White House reportedly declined King’s request to fly with the president to a GOP fundraiser in Iowa.
“President Trump doesn’t trust Steve King,” the ad says. “President Trump can count on Randy Feenstra.”
In January 2019, shortly after Feenstra launched his campaign against King, CNN host Don Lemon pressed him on whether he thought King was racist.
“I think his actions and his comments, they speak for themselves, and each voter has to make that decision as we move forward,” Feenstra said.
“That’s not an answer,” Lemon shot back. “Honestly, I think that’s a cop-out answer. Do you believe or not?”
“I’ll tell you this,” Feenstra responded. “What he said was abhorrent and there’s no place for those types of comments in our society today. There’s no place for that in our nation.”
Feenstra is one of four Republicans vying to beat King in Tuesday’s primary. There’s been a dearth of polling in the race, but one Public Opinion Strategies poll, conducted for an anti-King group, showed Feenstra leading King 41% to 39%, with three other candidates earning 8% combined.
“They’re kind of more just mainstream, very conservative Republicans, but a lot of their policy positions don’t differ too much from Steve King’s,” Rynard said of King’s primary opponents. “It’s just their focus and how they talk about things is different than King’s obsession with, you know, ethno-nationalism and the culture wars.”
King is possibly the weakest he’s ever been as a candidate. In 2018, after a series of stories from HuffPost and other outlets exposed his history of white supremacy, he won reelection in his district, one of the most conservative in the country, by only three points. (To put this in perspective, Trump won that district by over 20 points in 2016.)
Two months later, GOP leaders in the House took the rare step of stripping King of all his committee assignments as punishment for remarks he made to The New York Times. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King told the paper. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
Since then, many of King’s powerful GOP allies have abandoned him, and his 2020 reelection campaign has struggled to raise cash. King has yet to run a single TV ad during the primary, and three weeks ago had only about $26,000 cash on hand.
Feenstra, meanwhile, has over $400,000 in campaign cash and has enjoyed the support of flush PACs and other organizations. Priorities For Iowa spent $250,000 on TV ads attacking King. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which has previously bestowed King with awards for his conservative voting record — has spent another $200,000 attacking the congressman.
But this influx of money isn’t necessarily part of some moral campaign to unseat a racist in Congress. Rather, it’s to ensure that Republicans keep their hold on power in Washington.
“You talk to a lot of Republicans in this state privately, and they do think he’s a racist. They’re fed up with it. They just don’t have the guts to say it that much in person.”
“Our number one political priority for this cycle is to make sure the Senate stays Republican and [Senator Mitch] McConnell is the leader,” Scott Reed, a strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, explained to HuffPost.
Having a relatively unpopular candidate like King on the ballot this fall in the general election, Reed argued, could depress turnout for Republican Sen. Joni Ernst.
“Our concern is that he would have been a real albatross around Ernst’s neck,” he said.
Asked about why all the anti-King messaging coming from the Chamber and the GOP didn’t mention King’s racism, Reed demurred.
“We’re focused about jobs and growth,” he said. “That’s what the Chamber is all about: governing, jobs and growth, and we just stay in our lane. Other groups may make those other points, but we think our lane is about his ineffectiveness, getting kicked off the committee, and really not representing the voters in Iowa Four.”
Republican Iowa state Sen. Annette Sweeney, a former King supporter who now supports Feenstra, is also concerned that King could hurt the GOP.
“My primary issue is being able to hold the seat,” Sweeney told The Associated Press. “It makes it more difficult to do that when he’s lost his committees.”
Sweeney, according to the AP, would still only give glancing criticism of King.
“His comments at times were just off the cuff,” she said of King, who has routinely made racist statements about minorities. “Sometimes some of them might have been him trying to be funny or cute, though some weren’t. In fact, some were repulsive.”
If King holds on and wins Tuesday’s primary, he’ll face a rematch against J.D. Scholten, who’s running unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Scholten has nearly $700,000 cash on hand ahead of the race.
King, meanwhile, recently told a debate audience that he and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had agreed to a process that would see King reinstated to his committee seats. “I have Kevin McCarthy’s word that that will be my time for exoneration,” King claimed.
McCarthy quickly denied this. “Congressman King’s comments cannot be exonerated and I never said that,” he said.
A few days later, King penned an op-ed in the Sioux City Journal, lashing out at the “billionaire coastal RINO-NeverTrumper, globalist, neocon elites” trying to destroy his campaign.
“We will sprint through the fire together,” King wrote, “re-elect President Trump, take back the House from Nancy Pelosi, and Make America Great Again ... Again!”