For Steve King, the Number of People Who Want Him Gone Could Be a Blessing
Now his Iowa constituents will decide if it’s time to bring down the curtain on the nine-term congressman, who long stoked the immigration wars with racist remarks until he was disciplined last year in the House.
The problem for mainstream Republicans who would like to retire Mr. King in a June 2 party primary is that, with four challengers in the race, all sensing an opportunity and aggressively campaigning, the anti-King vote will be split four ways.
“Not to be Captain Obvious, but four people in the race always helps the incumbent,” said Rick Bertrand, who challenged Mr. King in the Republican primary in 2016 but is not running this year. “If this was a mano a mano race, King would be in trouble right now.”
In January 2019, Republican leaders stripped Mr. King of his House committee assignments after he suggested that white nationalism was not offensive. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, urged Mr. King to “find another line of work.” Mr. King defiantly remained.
His penchant for incurring the wrath of party leaders has marked his campaign. Over the weekend he raised the stakes by claiming to have recorded a phone call with Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, and contradicted Mr. McCarthy’s public statements.
Mr. King had told Iowans at a debate on May 11 that Mr. McCarthy had promised him “exoneration” and pledged to recommend “to put all of my committees back with all of my seniority.”
There was just one problem. Mr. McCarthy denied any such thing. “Congressman King’s comments cannot be exonerated, and I never said that,” he told reporters four days later. Should Mr. King win re-election, his committee assignments will be reviewed at the start of the next Congress by the Republican Steering Committee, “just like every single member,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Talking to members on the steering committee, I think he’d get the same answer that he got before.”
But on Saturday, during a candidate forum, Mr. King effectively called Mr. McCarthy untruthful. Brandishing papers that he said were transcripts of a phone call he had recorded with Mr. McCarthy, he insisted that the Republican leader told him in April he would lobby for the return of his committee assignments. “All Kevin McCarthy really needs to do is do what he said,” Mr. King said.
A spokesman for Mr. McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.
Even though Mr. King’s long history of inflammatory comments about immigration is not far removed from President Trump’s own rhetoric, Republicans are worried that with Mr. King on the ballot in November, a safe seat for the party could fall to Democrats.
“J.D. Scholten is waiting,” one of Mr. King’s challengers, Jeremy Taylor, said at a debate last week, referring to Mr. King’s general election opponent from 2018, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. “He cannot be the representative in this district.”
Mr. Scholten came within three percentage points of flipping the seat, in a Northwest Iowa district where Mr. Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016. A rematch would bring a flood of outside money to Mr. Scholten, a former minor league baseball player, but his chances would be considerably lower if he faces one of Mr. King’s primary challengers.
“A generic Republican should win convincingly,” said Dane Nealson, a Republican City Council member in Nevada, Iowa, in Mr. King’s district. “It speaks to King’s ineffectiveness as a congressman and embarrassment to our state, more than anything, that it was that close last time.”
If neither Mr. King nor any of his four challengers receives at least 35 percent of the vote on June 2, the nominee will be picked at a district convention. Convention attendees are drawn from the party’s most committed activists, and Mr. King is thought to have an advantage under that scenario.
Mr. King’s closest rival, Randy Feenstra, has been endorsed by mainstream Republican-leaning groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Right to Life Committee. A state senator, Mr. Feenstra has raised far more money than Mr. King, reporting $415,000 in cash on hand in the latest reporting period, compared to Mr. King’s $26,000. An internal poll that Mr. Feenstra released on May 11 showed Mr. King leading the field with 39 percent, closely trailed by Mr. Feenstra at 36 percent, a gap within the margin of error.
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