As many Republicans cheered King’s exit from public office, they acknowledged his demise was more about his personal controversies — which ranged from denigrating illegal immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling drugs to associating with far-right political figures with historical Nazi ties to defending white supremacy — than his conservative views.
“It’s not about the ideas. It became about the person,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president and chief executive of Republican Main Street Partnership, whose affiliated super PAC spent $100,000 to oust King. “A lot of his ideas have been adopted by the Republican Party. His rhetoric has not been, though.”
Even that suggestion is subject to debate: Trump has pushed the bounds of political discourse to unforeseen limits and made bigoted comments in private — attacking, for instance, majority-black “shithole countries” in a 2018 meeting with lawmakers — though he has publicly courted minority voters and refrained from making public comments as obviously prejudiced as King’s.
King did not initially back Trump for president in 2016, throwing his influential support behind Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) instead during a contentious GOP primary. But King enthusiastically embraced Trump after he won the nomination, and Trump in turn echoed many of King’s views on immigration — restrictionist stances that had been marginalized if not rejected entirely inside the business-friendly GOP for years before the tea party and then Trump rose to power.
Shortly after conceding the Republican nomination to state Sen. Randy Feenstra early Wednesday, King posted a Facebook message that in part pointed to the mainstreaming of his views as vindication of a job well done.
None of his primary opponents “raised an issue with a single vote I’ve put up or a single statement that I have made, and that’s pretty interesting when you think of nearly 18 years in the United States Congress,” he said. “This comes from an effort to push out the strongest voice for full-spectrum constitutional Christian conservatism that existed in the United States Congress.”
The case made against King in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District was in fact not about King’s views or even directly about his controversial comments but rather about his effectiveness.
After questioning why the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” should be considered offensive in a New York Times interview last year, party leaders stripped King of his committee assignments — including his seat on the House Agriculture panel, an important post for a district whose economy is overwhelmingly dependent on food production.
That offered Feenstra and others an opportunity to blast King as ineffective without necessarily having to directly challenge his views — an important distinction that allowed the candidates to appeal to former King supporters without having to indict their views by implication.
“I said from Day 1 that Iowans deserve a proven, effective, conservative leader that will deliver results . . . and I promise you, I will deliver results in Congress,” Feenstra said in a late-night Facebook video.
While the influence of King’s views are most clearly seen in the immigration realm — where King was an early supporter of not only cracking down on illegal immigration though physical barriers and tough sanctions on employers but on further restricting the flow of legal immigrants — his views opposing abortion and supporting gun rights have also been at his party’s vanguard.
King was an early supporter, for instance, of “heartbeat bills” that would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Several states passed such legislation last year, and anticipated constitutional challenges are now working their way though the federal courts.
But his long string of racially offensive comments forced even some of his most conservative allies to keep their distance. While King protested that his Times comments had been taken out of context, few prominent Republicans were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt due to his long record of controversy. Just months before, for instance, King met in Vienna with members of a far-right Austrian party with historical ties to the Nazi party while on a congressional junket financed by a Holocaust memorial group.
Trump did not mention King in a late-night tweet offering praise to the nominee: “Congratulations to Randy Feenstra on your big win in the Iowa Republican Primary. You will be a great Congressman!”
But other Republican officials did not hold their tongue. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel repudiated King in an early-morning tweet: “Steve King’s white supremacist rhetoric is totally inconsistent with the Republican Party, and I’m glad Iowa Republicans rejected him at the ballot box.”
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), a former chairman of the House GOP campaign arm, thanked Feenstra in a late-night Instagram post for defeating King. Stivers raised eyebrows in Washington last year by rebuking King and later making an early donation to Feenstra.
Part of the concern about King was rooted in politics: While King won in 2016 by 22 percentage points over his Democratic opponent, he beat first-time candidate J.D. Scholten in 2018 by barely three points.
Scholten is again running a well-financed campaign, and many prominent Republicans feared that King might not survive.
Chamberlain said she spoke to several Republicans who breathed sighs of relief as it became clear King would lose Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. At stake was not only a House seat, she said, but also the six electoral votes in a presidential swing state and the reelection campaign of Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).
“Most of them would never wish ill on him; I think they just wish he had retired and gone home,” Chamberlain said. “It’s tough to have to beat a sitting member. You know, they don’t like to do it. But at the same time, it kind of had to be done because we could not lose the seat to the Democrats.”
Some Republicans have avoided drawing any sweeping conclusions whatsoever, at least publicly, including the state’s dominant Republican political figure — seven-term Sen. Charles E. Grassley, who did not make an endorsement in the primary.
“You’re asking me to determine how tens of thousands of people voted, and I can’t answer that for you,” he said when questioned about what motivated voters to oust King. He praised the “very strong turnout.”
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 Trump by 27 points in 2016.
King, meanwhile, warned his fellow travelers in his concession video that his loss — fueled by spending from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other outside forces — could portend future setbacks.
“What I regret is these tactics may get legs and be used against the next most effective [conservative], then the next, then the next,” he said.