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Rep. Steve King Fights For His Seat As GOP Works To Push Him Out

Rep. Steve King is seen at a town hall in Hampton, Iowa, in 2019.
Clay Masters
Iowa Public Radio
Rep. Steve King is seen at a town hall in Hampton, Iowa, in 2019.

Weeks before the 2018 midterm, President Trump stood before a packed arena in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and singled out Rep. Steve King — then running for his ninth term.

"[King] may be the world's most conservative human being," Trump said to a crowd of cheering supporters.

Now, King is fighting to hang onto his seat. Republican leaders stripped him of his committee assignments in early 2019 for racist comments he made in the New York Times. And now some Republicans are afraid if King wins his primary, his rock-ribbed Republican district is in jeopardy of getting picked up by Democrats.

King has a history of making offensive comments. Republican operative and Sioux City resident Omar Marquez lives in King's district. Marquez, who used to work in Washington, D.C., used to support King and says he defended him when people asked why he kept getting elected.

"I would say 'the people of the 4th district like him, that's why'," Marquez said. "He has stood on principle. You can't take that away from the congressman."

Now, Marquez wants a change. He's backing Jeremy Taylor, a former county supervisor and a chaplain in the National Guard.

But King's past statements aren't the main part of the debate in this primary. Instead, the focus is on King's clout.

King was stripped of his House committee assignments, including a seat on the all-important Agriculture Committee, in 2019 after questioning when the terms white nationalist and white supremacist became offensive in an interview with the New York Times. While King still has supporters, many top Iowa Republicans have abandoned him. Among them is prominent Iowa social conservative and CEO of the Family Leader Bob Vander Plaats, who cut an ad on behalf of one of King's opponents.

"Whatever you think of Steve King, it's clear he's no longer effective," Vander Plaats says in the ad paid for by Priorities for Iowa. "He can't deliver for President Trump and he can't advance our conservative values."

U.S. Ambassador to China and former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has also abandoned King. He and Vander Plaats support state Sen. Randy Feenstra of Hull, who has far outraised the congressman.

Another Feenstra supporter is David Kochel, a GOP campaign strategist who says it's time for King to go.

"Over the years his rhetoric has changed, his focus on issues has changed and this has kind of lead to the point I think we're at," Kochel said.

King only won his district by 3 points in 2018 to Democrat and political newcomer J.D. Scholten. He's running again and hoping for a rematch this year. Kochel says this district should never be in play for Democrats.

"It tells you that we're at risk of losing that seat if Congressman King is the nominee," Kochel said.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds handily beat her Democratic opponent Fred Hubbell in 2018 in King's district — Kochel says by more than 20 points.

But King insists those in his party who now oppose him are scared of facing criticism.

"The never-Trumpers are the ones that ginned this all up," King said during a debate on WHO-TV in Des Moines.

King claims House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said he can have his committee assignments back if he's re-elected but McCarthy says that's not true. King said at the debate he's the victim of an organized effort to oust him.

"This isn't on me," King said. "This is on the people that made those decisions and people need to realize what it is about. Being misquoted in the New York Times?"

The June 2 primary will show if all this work within the Republican party is enough to push King out of Congress. But coming across as an embattled and anti-establishment congressman might be enough to get the voters back home to want to roll the dice on sending King back for a 10th term.

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Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.