King seemed weakened. A primary challenger arose, with the backing of some influential Republican groups that no longer (or perhaps never) wanted to associate their party with King.
But the fact that King lost his seat Tuesday, in the middle of the most dramatic and tense anti-racism protests in decades in this country, makes his loss extra notable. There are as many motivations for voting as there are voters, but it takes a lot of energy and momentum for voters to eject their sitting member of Congress, much less one they have kept in office for 18 years.
And the Republican voters who just voted out King in favor of Republican state Sen. Randy Feenstra are about as conservative as it gets.
Feenstra tried not to dwell too much on King’s racial controversies. The district had reelected King even after he said that immigrants were “drug mules” and that many illegal immigrants have “calves the size of cantaloupes”; wondered on live television what “subgroups” besides white people contributed to civilization; said the idea that every culture is equal is “not objectively true”; said racial profiling is an important policing tool; defended Trump separating migrant children from their parents at the border; has had social media and political connections to people with Nazi ties; and opposed putting abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.
Instead, Feenstra focused on how ineffective King would be if he went back to Congress next year with no committees to sit on. National Republicans worried that King could put the seat at risk for the Republican Party if he won. King won his last election, in 2018, by only three points.
King was so vocal about nationalism that it defined him. He only recently had paid a price for it in Congress, but he had years ago become known nationally for it.
As his primary came Tuesday, another major racial story had become a national flash point: the protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a long list of police brutality against black Americans. Largely white Iowa isn’t the epicenter of these demonstrations, but the story of the protests is so big that it dominated news coverage even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic collapse.
A day earlier, federal law enforcement officers had fired rubber bullets and forcibly removed peaceful protesters outside the White House so Trump could walk across the street for a photo op at a church with a Bible.
King’s primary was, to at least one degree, tied up in all this. And as a nation once again confronts the racism embedded deeply within it, the man who defended and at times even appeared to embrace everything these protesters are out on the streets opposing will soon no longer be a member of Congress.