REMSEN, Iowa — As the polka band played and the volunteers started serving the bratwurst, word slowly rippled through the annual Oktoberfest in this remote Iowa farm town: Eleven Jews had been massacred in Pittsburgh, gunned down at their synagogue.
“Hatred,” Iowans gathered for the celebration said. “Sad.” “Awful.” “Makes me sick.”
No one questioned whether their well-liked representative, Steve King — the U.S. congressman most openly affiliated with white nationalism — might be contributing to anti-Semitism or racism through his unapologetic embrace of white nationalist rhetoric and his praise of far-right politicians and groups in other nations.
“There’s still groups out there that praise Hitler and believe everything he taught. . . . A lot of that is going to get misconstrued,” said Joe Schuttpelz. If King’s goal is defending the status of native-born Americans as immigrants move in, then Schuttpelz approves. “He’s not so much protecting us from getting taken over as giving us some advantages that everybody else has when they come here,” he said.
The belief he expressed Saturday in Remsen, in the wake of the deadliest attack on American Jews in history, is prevalent across Iowa’s 4th District, where King is seeking a ninth term in Congress.
In his 16 years in the House, King has become better known for making incendiary remarks about immigration and race than for passing a bill. He has maligned some Latinos as having “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” He has defended the Confederate flag and displayed one on his desk.
He has embraced far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders and recently endorsed Faith Goldy, a fringe candidate for Toronto mayor who was fired by a far-right publication for appearing on a podcast produced by the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer.
In an August interview with members of a far-right Austrian party with historical Nazi ties, King lamented that “Western civilization is on the decline” because of immigrants and criticized Jewish financier George Soros.
“What does this diversity bring that we don’t already have?” he asked then.
In an interview after Saturday’s shooting in Pittsburgh, King said he was not anti-Semitic, touting his strong support for Israel and insisting there’s “a special place in hell” for anyone who perpetrates religious or race-based violence.
“How do you call Steve King anti-Semitic?” he asked, just before giving a speech supporting gun rights at a dinner celebrating the first day of pheasant hunting season in the western Iowa town of Akron.
He said the groups he’s associated with that are criticized as having neo-Nazi views were more accurately “far right” groups. He specifically cited Austria’s Freedom Party, which was founded by a former Nazi SS officer and is led by Heinz-Christian Strache, who was active in neo-Nazi circles as a youth. The group has emphasized a hard-line anti-immigration stance even as it seeks to distance itself from the Nazi connections.
“If they were in America pushing the platform that they push, they would be Republicans,” King said.
King’s Democratic opponent, J.D. Scholten, has significantly outraised him and has mounted a far more aggressive in-person campaign across the district. The Sioux City Journal on Friday endorsed Scholten, reversing its backing of King in past years.
“Each time King immerses himself in controversy, he holds up this district to ridicule and marginalizes himself within the legislative body he serves, neither of which provides benefit to Iowans who live and work here,” the endorsement said, citing King for tying himself to “intolerant ugliness.”
Last week, Scholten, on the 37th stop of his third 39-county swing through the area, largely avoided bashing King, and even more rarely talked about President Trump. Like many Midwestern Democrats, he has focused on health care and agriculture.
On Saturday, a Scholten aide said the Pittsburgh shooting had sparked a new wave of donations to his campaign.
In an interview, Scholten said King has failed throughout his career to denounce hate groups.
“It goes against everything we are taught in church,” he said. “Whatever you believe in, this district has strong faith, and none of these faiths preach this.”
But King remains popular; many voters do not consider his positions disqualifying.
Bob Scott, the mayor of Sioux City — the largest town in the sprawling district — says Iowans don’t share King’s views, although they do vote for him.
“They may have problems with immigration. They may have problems about race relations for whatever reason,” he said. “But the majority won’t agree with what goes on when he’s meeting with those people from Austria. I just don’t see that type of racism here, and that’s what it is.”
Across the 4th District — a highly conservative swath of Iowa nearly 200 miles wide, mile upon mile of fertile farmland dotted with towns the length of a two-block Main Street — King has widespread support.
“Steve’s Steve. He’s a local guy. He graduated from high school here. He comes in for breakfast on Sundays,” says Crawford County Supervisor Eric Skoog, who with his wife, Terri, owns what they believe to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Iowa.
At the counter of Cronk’s, which has been open since 1929, Skoog says he disagrees with King on immigration and hasn’t been afraid to share his conflicting views. Skoog has worked hard to help local schools adjust to the influx of immigrant children in Denison, one place in the heavily white district where a major meatpacking plant has drawn a sizable Hispanic community.
Still, Skoog said, “I don’t see him as racist. I don’t know. He’s just Steve.” Come November, he said, he’ll probably vote for him.
Some in the district welcome King’s blunt talk.
“We’re getting pretty happy in this country about kicking the white guy. Only one group of people haven’t achieved minority status, and it’s white men,” says Steve Sorensen, a former truck driver, watching the World Series in a Hampton bar. “You can fire a white man every time you want. He’s got no recourse. Try that with anybody else.”
Mindy Rainer also believes that others get government benefits more easily than she does, as a white woman. “There are people out there that are desperate as hell, and I’m one of them,” she says, sliding up to the bar at the restaurant in the town of Cherokee where she works.
Rainer’s husband was injured on a job site 25 years ago, she said, and denied disability benefits because of bureaucratic hurdles. She has supported them both, but now her kidneys are failing and she fears that she won’t be able to work for the eight years until her husband can collect Social Security.
Rainer recalled lining up to try to get help with her utility bills when she lived in South Carolina and becoming suspicious of the others in line, almost all of them African American.
“What upset me more than anything was all them black babies were dressed up in the best clothes,” she said. “When their kids are wearing $150 tennis shoes, what do you think?”
She sides with King when he talks about immigration. “Why should we feed others when we can’t feed ourselves?” she asked.
King’s nativist views are far less popular among the area’s business leaders, who see immigration as essential to filling the needs of meat-processing plants and other companies.
“We need more people. We have great-paying jobs. We just need more people to fill the jobs,” said Kelly Halsted, the economic development director for the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance, a business organization. Immigration into Iowa, she says, is “completely a positive.”
King’s stance on the issue is totally wrong, she said, but she’ll still vote for him because she believes he has helped steer money to Iowa projects: “You have to take the good with the bad, right?”
As a Halloween parade marched through Cherokee, passing King’s campaign posters in a window near the starting point, others said they would spurn their longtime congressman this year. Martee Heinse, a Republican who said she’s pleased with Trump, heard Scholten’s television ads and came away impressed by his positive tone.
“Let’s have a change, since we’ve had the other guy for so long,” she said.
Scott Embrock, parading with children dressed as a small skeleton, a little witch and a superhero, was more emphatic.
“I think it’s about time he’s gone,” he said of King. “He deals with neo-Nazis. He’s anti-anybody who’s not white. And I don’t think that’s right.”