The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Steve King, who was shunned by GOP leaders for his racist remarks, loses in Iowa primary

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose racist language angered Democrats and Republicans, lost his House seat in the June 2 primaries. (Video: The Washington Post)

Iowa Republicans voted Tuesday to end the long and divisive congressional career of Rep. Steve King, whose hard-right views on immigration and abortion became part of the GOP mainstream over two decades in the House but whose deliberately polarizing rhetoric ultimately became a liability for his party.

Support for King started to evaporate last year after he made racially offensive remarks that forced national Republicans to distance themselves from the conservative Iowa firebrand.

That gave an opening to state Sen. Randy Feenstra, who garnered support from national GOP groups and from some prominent Iowa conservatives who argued that King undermined his influence in Washington with his drumbeat of provocative behavior.

Feenstra led by nine points late Tuesday and was projected to beat King, according to the Associated Press.

“I am truly humbled,” Feenstra said in a statement. “Thank you to each and every person who supported us on this journey against all odds. You delivered. But tomorrow, it’s back to work.”

King’s campaign issued no immediate comment. In a final tweet before votes were counted, he urged voters to nominate him for a 10th term: “Whatever they might say about Steve King,” he said in a brief video, “I have never let you down.”

Iowa’s elections were among dozens of congressional primaries taking place amid a backdrop of a global pandemic, civil unrest and a national reckoning over racism and police violence, with voters in eight states and the District of Columbia casting ballots. Several of the elections, which in some states included the presidential race, had been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was projected to win primaries in New Mexico, Montana, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, according to Edison Media Research, as he amasses delegates to secure the nomination.

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The key issues in King’s race have been years in the making. He lost his House committee assignments in January 2019 after questioning in a New York Times interview why the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” should be considered offensive. It was perhaps the most egregious in a long record of pointed comments demeaning minorities, immigrants and multiculturalism, punctuated by dealings with far-right European activists.

Although Feenstra hesitated to attack King directly for his views, he was not shy about questioning his relevance in Washington — particularly after King lost his seat on the House Agriculture Committee, an important sinecure for the rural western Iowa district.

“The 4th District needs a seat at the table, an effective conservative voice,” Feenstra said in a May 26 debate held by WHO-TV. “To me, this election is about real results, not campaign rhetoric. . . . Our district, our president deserves an effective conservative leader in Congress.”

The recent civil unrest was little more than an atmospheric issue in the Iowa race. King has posted memes critical of protesters to his Facebook page in recent days, but Feenstra has not addressed the crisis on his own social media accounts, opting instead to focus on King’s effectiveness and his efforts to get out the vote. The 4th District is 92.8 percent white, making it one of the least diverse districts in the country.

It is also historically conservative, but the controversies swirling around King took a toll on his popularity. In 2016, he won by 22 percentage points over his Democratic opponent. In 2018, he beat first-time candidate J.D. Scholten by barely three points, and now Scholten is running again with a campaign war chest five times as large as that of any GOP candidate — and many prominent Republicans feared that King may not survive.

With King’s loss, two prominent nonpartisan forecasters — the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections — moved the race from “lean Republican” to “safe Republican,” indicating Feenstra should have no trouble dispatching Scholten in a district that voted for Donald Trump by 27 points in 2016.

The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee made no mention of King in a statement congratulating Feenstra. “I have no doubt that Randy will be a strong, conservative voice in Congress who will make Iowa proud, and I am excited to start working with him in the next Congress,” said Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.).

Feenstra had raised about $926,000 to King’s $331,000 — a paltry sum for a nine-term incumbent in a competitive race. Meanwhile, Defending Main Street, a GOP super PAC affiliated with the moderate Main Street Partnership, spent $100,000 to oust King, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $200,000 more behind Feenstra.

But there have been notable changes of heart in Iowa, too. Among those who backed Feenstra was activist Bob Vander Plaats, a GOP political kingmaker in western Iowa who once was one of King’s staunchest allies. In an ad funded by the Priorities for Iowa super PAC, Vander Plaats said King was “no longer effective” in Washington — echoing Feenstra’s central campaign message.

“He can’t deliver for President Trump, and he can’t advance our conservative values,” he said. “Thankfully, Iowa has a better choice.”

King fought back, leveraging his high profile in the district and long record as an archconservative nemesis of immigration and abortion. In a recent Sioux City Journal op-ed, he called the primary race against Feenstra the “epicenter of the battle against the swamp,” labeling his opponents — and Feenstra’s backers — “billionaire coastal RINO-NeverTrumper, globalist, neocon elites.”

“This race is nationalized because I’m effective,” he wrote. “I have run to the sound of the guns in every important fight. I have walked towards the fire and through the fire. I’m deeply tempered by the experience. I can face the swamp down because we’re right and they’re wrong and they know it.”

GOP leader won’t endorse Steve King’s reelection in competitive primary

Countering his loss of committee assignments, King claimed at a candidate forum last month that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) promised his “time for exoneration” would come if he were reelected and his committee seats would be restored.

McCarthy denied any such promise, telling reporters last month: “Congressman King’s comments cannot be exonerated, and I never said that.”

Craig Robinson, who runs the website, said Feenstra offered the district everything King did as a conservative, but with no baggage.

“How much does the voter want to put up with? The activists like the guy who gets on talk radio and is fighting the good fight, but when you represent a district, there’s a lot of things that your district needs, and that’s where there’s an appetite to move on,” Robinson said.

Elsewhere in Tuesday's primaries, Democratic voters chose business executive Theresa Greenfield to take on first-term Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) in what promises to be one of most competitive Senate races of the year.

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Greenfield has won the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and benefited from millions of dollars of spending by outside groups that believed she had the best chance of unseating Ernst. With Greenfield holding a 20-point lead on retired Navy Adm. Mike Franken, the Associated Press projected her victory early Tuesday evening.

Although Greenfield raised a staggering $7 million for her campaign, she spent only about $2.3 million ahead of the primary, leaving her with a significant war chest for her battle with Ernst.

In other Senate races, voters in Montana nominated Sen. Steve Daines (R) and Gov. Steve Bullock (D) to face off in a potentially competitive contest. Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who abandoned a promising climb up the House leadership ranks for a run at the other chamber, will face former TV weatherman Mark Ronchetti in a New Mexico race that tilts Democratic, according to nonpartisan forecasters.

Voters also chose nominees for open House seats being vacated by Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), David Loebsack (D-Iowa) and Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), as well as Lujan’s safely Democratic seat.

In one of the evening’s earliest results, voters in Indiana’s 5th District nominated two candidates with state legislative experience, Sen. Victoria Spartz (R) and former Rep. Christina Hale (D), to face off in an affluent suburban district where national Democrats believe they have a chance to win the seat being vacated by Brooks.

The race in New Mexico has garnered particular attention because of the candidacy of Valerie Plame — a former CIA officer whose cover was blown by a top aide to then-vice president Richard B. Cheney, leading to a major Washington scandal and turning her into a figure of national intrigue. But her profile did not translate into an easy path to the nomination.

Key figures in New Mexico and nationally backed civil rights lawyer Teresa Leger Fernandez, who has played up her deep roots in the district. Among her backers is Emily’s List, an influential Democratic women’s group, whose affiliated super PAC spent $300,000 on her behalf, as well as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s political committee, which has spent more than $400,000.

Leger Fernandez captured the nomination, dashing Plame’s hopes of winning a seat.

Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.