DENISON, Iowa — “You’re going to get me in trouble,” said Eric Skoog, owner of Cronk’s Cafe, as he set down a bowl of oatmeal in the backroom of his diner, a room plastered with calendars, pictures and political memorabilia.
After four decades of seeing presidential hopefuls and their families stop by his cafe by the gas station on Route 30, Skoog knows a reporter when he sees one. And he knows why reporters are stopping by these days, more than a year before the Iowa caucuses, 22 months before the next presidential election.
“You want to talk about Steve King,” he said.
Everyone in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District has something to say about King, the man voters elected to a ninth consecutive term in the U.S. House of Representatives in November despite his long history of racist rhetoric — though Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten stunned pundits by coming within three points of ousting him in what many consider a sign that King’s behavior is growing tiresome to more and more of his constituents.
Outside King’s district, outrage is growing. Recently, after King wondered aloud in a New York Times article about why terms like “white supremacy” are considered offensive, a challenger named Randy Feenstra, a state senator whose district overlaps with King’s, announced he would challenge King for the Republican nomination in 2020. The presence of a viable Republican alternative seemed to empower King’s colleagues in Washington; he was removed from his committee assignments, including one to the House Agriculture Committee.
But as national rebukes pile up, Iowa’s 4th District is confronting an escalating dilemma: In a district that is 50 percent rural, a seat on the agricultural committee means something. In a district that is 95 percent white, recent history suggests his rhetoric does not mean as much.
As the rest of the country roars its disapproval, some in King’s district wonder if change is finally coming as others wonder why so many think change is necessary at all. Democrats in his district express frustration with their neighbors who keep him in office, and embarrassment about the inaccurate picture they believe he is painting of their district — a picture in which his constituents are considered racist by extension. Some Republicans argue he isn’t racist and believe he speaks for the interests of his constituents.
“I don’t know him the way you guys write him up back there,” Skoog said. “I don’t know him that way.”
“Does what he says out there matter here? Yes,” Skoog said. “It feeds the Democrats. It does. I know that.”
King went to high school in Denison, a few minutes from Cronk’s Cafe, and the two got to know each other as Skoog, a registered Republican, became more involved in local politics. When King was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2002, and Skoog was still making regular trips to Washington, they would meet up for drinks at the Dubliner.
Now, in his little office, a room insulated from the influence of time and the beating of decades of political waves, Skoog chooses his words carefully. A few yards away is the round table where he and a group of 30 or so men from the area sit and talk politics most mornings — the “Roundtable Boys,” they call them — some coming and going, some agreeing and some disagreeing.
Once a month, Cronk’s Cafe hosts a meeting of local Republicans. Once a month, it hosts a meeting of local Democrats, too. Skoog is serving on the Crawford County Board of Supervisors now. His diner has welcomed political figures from all sides, from George McGovern to Mike Huckabee, from Barbara Bush to Michelle Obama. Skoog has seen it all, but not with King.
“I am a little surprised by [how people talk about King]. I don’t hear it like that,” Skoog said. “I don’t know how to say it. I can’t put my finger on it. But he’s not — when I see him, he’s not running for office. That’s the best way I can put it.”
King has suggested that Barack Obama’s middle name, Hussein, would make him a favorite of al-Qaeda, suggested immigrants have “calves the size of cantaloupes,” honed by hauling drugs, and inquired, on national television, about “what subgroup of people contributes more to civilization” than whites — all before his most sharply rebuked comments this month.
Many members of the state’s GOP leadership who reside in the 4th District did not respond to inquiries about King. Three members of state central committee declined to discuss him, explaining their frustrations with his description in the mainstream media. One called him “a good man” whose words were “taken out of context.”
Another said King gets “carried away,” but opposed the notion that any of King’s comments imply he is prejudiced.
About 90 miles away, in a coffee shop in the largest city in King’s district — Sioux City — insurance salesman Nick Raitt sat at a counter and tried to eat his lunch as cameramen clamored for space. He came to Pierce Street Coffee Works for some soup and a sandwich, not meaning to find himself in the middle of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s first Iowa tour — not expecting to find himself surrounded by Democrats at all, much less one from New York running for president.
“This is probably the most Democratic room you’ll find around here,” joked Raitt, a Sioux City Republican. The six Iowa counties that voted most emphatically for Donald Trump in the 2016 election are near Sioux City, in the northwest part of the state. Sixty percent of King’s district voted for Trump, the most of any of Iowa’s four districts.
Raitt said King “sets himself up for all the harassment that he gets.”
“But I do think when it comes to the racist [expletive], people in this area are sick of certain groups on the left constantly spouting ‘racism, racism, racism.’ It pisses people off,” Raitt said. “That shouldn’t be the main conversation point. Is the guy prejudiced? Pretty much. It’s tough to deny that. But at the same time, it’s not the most important issue for people here.”
In King’s district, farming issues loom large. Despite aid provided by a $12 billion dollar bailout to offset the costs of his tariffs, China’s retaliatory decision to curb its purchase of American soybeans leaves many farmers with a bleak outlook for 2019. Concerns about housing shortages and manufacturing exist there, too.
“He’s completely ineffectual now,” said Kitty Green, a Sioux City Democrat, referring to King’s removal from committees. “He’s been fired, for all practical purposes. Does it matter? It matters to some people.”
For others in the district, questions of racial discrimination matter, too. La Prensa, a local Hispanic newspaper, has called King’s rhetoric “blatantly racist.” A few months ago, the paper published a letter to King from Jose Ibarra, an elected council member from Storm Lake, one of the more diverse communities in the state where the schools are majority Hispanic, not white.
Ibarra wrote that letter to King asking him to visit the community and see how the lines between immigrants and nonimmigrants there “are becoming less noticeable.” King won Storm Lake’s county by one point in 2018; he had won it by 16 points in 2016.
King’s next election is 20 months away. In the meantime, voters grapple with the perception of their district — and, more complicated still, the perception of their neighbors.
“A candidate is more than the sum of one particular issue or statement. [King’s] supporters will talk about things they like about him, but not mention the racist part of it,” said Greg Guelcher, a 4th District Democrat.
“The problem is, they don’t step back and think about how what he says conveys an image of this district,” he added.
“When you press [King] on the more controversial statements he makes, he always says, ‘That’s not what I meant, you’re taking it out of context,” Guelcher said. “I’ve met Steve King. He’s not that stupid.”
Neither King’s office nor his son, Jeff, who works on his campaign, responded to inquiries. King did issue a statement in response to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R) after the Californian stripped him of his committee assignments earlier this month.
“Leader McCarthy’s decision to remove me from committees is a political decision that ignores the truth,” King wrote. He said that his words had been “completely mischaracterized.”
Iowa’s power structure, meanwhile, began to condemn King after its fellow Republicans in Washington started doing the same. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said she will not endorse King in a 2020 primary like she did in 2018, a significant pivot after King served as a co-chairman of her reelection committee last fall. Iowa’s two Republican senators, Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst, have condemned King’s remarks. Grassley endorsed King in the last election, after the chairman of the House Republican election committee called him a white supremacist. Ernst appeared with King at one of his campaign rallies.
The Sioux City Journal’s editorial board recently called for King to resign his seat, a suggestion he turned aside. But not all Iowans have rendered a judgment yet.
“This is a pretty white part of the country. You don’t have people worrying about ‘diversity, diversity, diversity’ like if you’re out in California or New York,” Raitt said, as he finished up his lunch, his personal space all but consumed by the horde following Gillibrand that day.
He added, “It’s not as big of an issue as what the national media would like to bring it out to be. If and when there’s a better candidate against him, he’ll get voted out.”