Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is a divisive figure in Congress, and Democrats think they finally have an opponent who could beat him: former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King is one of those archetypal culture warriors who has been driving liberals crazy for years because he is so unabashed and vocal about his views, and because, after nearly 10 years in the House, he had begun to seem unbeatable.

But this year, deep in the partisan trenches that now define American politics, Democrats in Iowa and beyond see a chance to neutralize a key political adversary by defeating King in a race that promises to be a recurring flash point in the battle for political control of Washington.

“A victory over King would be a victory for sanity in Congress more than any ideological victory,” said Becky Bond, who heads a liberal super PAC that is targeting King for defeat.

King seems to relish the opposition. “I saw the list of ‘countercultural PACs’ that lined up in the first days,” he said, before adding: “We saw [George] Soros money in there. I joked that it was Vegetarians for Peace and the Michael Moore Foundation and everybody in between.”

Opponents point to King’s rhetoric to explain their animus.

He once said terrorists would be “dancing in the streets” if President Obama won the 2008 election. He claimed that Congress was to blame for a suicidal pilot who crashed his plane into an Internal Revenue Service office in 2010 because lawmakers failed to follow King’s advice to abolish the tax agency. And King, a founding member of the House Tea Party Caucus, once called disgraced former senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) “a great American hero.”

King was the only one of 535 members of Congress in 2009 to vote against a plaque recognizing slaves who helped build the Capitol.

“Steve King is a face of this tea party Republican Congress,” said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Defeating him would put us one step closer to taking away tea party control of Congress.”

Facing a long, steep climb back to majority status in the House, Democrats think they finally have an opponent who could beat King — former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, whose husband, Tom, served two terms as governor and is now Obama’s agriculture secretary.

King has a history with the Vilsacks, though most of it is tied to the former governor, whose rise to prominence in Iowa politics came at the same time as King’s. The two now face each other in Washington, where King uses his plum assignment on the Agriculture Committee to raise concerns with Department of Agriculture policy.

“I really didn’t think there was a history between me and Christie,” King said in an interview, adding later: “I don’t know if this is a vicarious campaign or not.”

Democrats are treating the race as a priority and playing up the fact that if Vilsack wins she will also be the first woman elected to federal office in Iowa.

“She is running against everyone’s favorite tea party spokesman,” Ferguson said. The result is a huge amount of outside interest in the race. The conservative Club for Growth plans to target Vilsack, while Bond’s CREDO Super PAC, opposed to tea-party-aligned lawmakers, plans to spend money against King. Polls suggest the King-Vilsack race will be close. Both candidates raised about $400,000 during the first three months of 2012, and observers expect total spending on the race to near $10 million — the most in Iowa’s history.

“With Vilsack’s great name recognition, Democrats figure this is a race where they’re willing to put some money into it,” said University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle. “And some money with her name recognition — she probably has a shot.”

Iowa’s congressional delegation will shrink by one, from five to four, after the 2010 reapportionment. As a result, King’s old district, which ran north to south along the Missouri River, is gone. He is facing Vilsack in the new 4th District, which maintains a Republican advantage in voter registration because of GOP strongholds such as Sioux City and surrounding counties in northwest Iowa. But the new district also includes moderate and liberal towns such as Fort Dodge and Ames, the home of Iowa State University.

King coasted to reelection victories in his old 5th District thanks in part to a wide Republican voter advantage. There were roughly 147,600 GOP voters in King’s old district, about 54,000 more than registered Democrats; independents accounted for about 124,000 voters. In the new 4th District, King and Vilsack plan to focus on wooing the 178,000 registered independent voters, who run nearly equal to its 179,000 registered Republicans; the district has about 131,000 registered Democrats.

Mindful of his challenge, King has held more than 23 events over the two-week congressional recess and emphasized his rural roots. During a stop in Harlan, King told 35 mostly older voters that Obama’s push to bolster “the dependency class” will never work. “It didn’t work in the Old Testament; it didn’t work in the New Testament.”

When he took questions, Dottie Knudsen, from nearby Elk Horn, spoke first: “I think you just want to make sure you’ve got your slingshot ready, five stones in there and practice.” Warming to the biblical reference of David and Goliath, King replied, “I think that’s what David did,” before mentioning that he carries a small stone with him plucked “from the stream where David chose his five smooth stones.”

Vilsack said her campaign will expose clear differences with King.

“I think he sees the job more through a Washington lens, a more national lens, and I think he’s using the job to promote himself and promote an agenda” inconsistent with the district, she said.

On the stump, King vows to repeal the health-care law, while Vilsack believes Americans will support the reforms as they learn more about them. King hopes to strip away “big government” regulations to boost job growth; Vilsack wants to close the rural “digital divide” and help rural economies. Both candidates support developing alternative energy sources because the district produces an abundance of ethanol and wind power.

Tom and Christie Vilsack occupied the governor’s mansion in Des Moines from 1999 to 2007, and supporters say much of the support she enjoys is rooted in her attention as first lady to literacy and developing small-town libraries.

“In a way, it’s easier to be the candidate than to be the spouse. You’re actually involved in it, and you’re doing it,” Vilsack said in an interview at her Ames campaign office. “Being the spouse is always hard, because you’re a little bit on the outside watching and you want to be protective of people, protective of the person that you care about.”

As King travels across the new district speaking about repealing “Obamacare” and balancing the budget, he’s facing tough questions about his support for the House Republican budget plan that cuts funding for Iowa farmers and for opposing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Democrats said he appears willing to break the Republican anti-tax pledge in order to win. They highlighted his response to a voter in Algona, Iowa, who asked whether he would have supported higher taxes if George W. Bush wanted more revenue to pay for the Iraq war.

“I don’t know if I would have or not,” King said, adding that he had talked to anti-tax activist Grover Norquist about “what do we do when we get taxes down to where they need to be? At some point we’re going to cut taxes too much. What’s the answer then? I’m thinking about that.”

Democrats see weakness in King’s willingness to hedge on the tax question, and they are eager to turn that weakness into a Vilsack triumph.

“The defeat of Steve King would be an iconic political achievement,” said Sue Dvorsky, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.