White supremacist Rep. Steve King’s 18-year career in the House came to an inglorious end on Tuesday after he lost the Republican primary to state Sen. Randy Feenstra in western Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. With 95% of precincts reporting (78,000 votes), Feenstra led by a wide 46-36.
King’s downfall came over a year after House GOP leaders voted to strip him of his committee assignments after he defended white supremacy in an instantly notorious interview with the New York Times. King, who had been a weak fundraiser for years, immediately rendered himself toxic to influential donors, allowing Feenstra to outspend him decisively. Third-party groups, including the deep-pocketed U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also spent heavily on ads portraying King as ineffective and unable to help Donald Trump without his committee posts.
Feenstra will take on 2018 Democratic nominee J. D. Scholten, who faced no primary opposition. Scholten held King to a surprisingly close 50-47 win last cycle and has once again raised large sums for his campaign, but he’ll have a very difficult time winning in a district that Donald Trump carried 61-35 against a Republican who lacks King’s considerable baggage. Daily Kos Elections rates this contest as Likely Republican, though we’ll be re-evaluating that now that King is out of the picture.
King’s defeat marks the end of the line for a man who was, until very recently, an extremely influential power player in Iowa. King was first elected in 2002 to Iowa’s most conservative House seat, which was numbered the 5th District at the time, and he soon emerged as one of the most sought-after endorsements in the state’s quadrennial presidential caucuses.
King also became known in Congress for his far-right rhetoric, especially on immigration. In 2010, for example, he said that law enforcement officials could identify undocumented immigrants based on “[w]hat kind of clothes people wear … what kind of shoes people wear, what kind of accent they have … sometimes it’s just a sixth sense they can’t put their finger on.”
Three years later, he attacked students hoping to become American citizens by spewing, "For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."
Democrats ran credible campaigns against King in both 2012 and 2014, but the incumbent decisively won both times. In 2016, King also turned back a primary challenge from state Sen. Rick Bertrand 65-35, a result that made him look all the more secure in his western Iowa constituency.
But King's behavior grew even worse during the Trump era. Weeks before the 2018 election, voters learned that their congressman was rubbing shoulders with international white supremacist candidates and hate groups. This included an August meeting with the far-right Austrian Freedom Party—which has historical ties to the Nazi Party and more modern ones to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s party—that King took during a trip to eastern Europe. Gallingly, that junket was paid for by a Holocaust memorial group.
During this same trip, King also gave an interview to a website allied with the Freedom Party where he asked what diversity brings to America "that we don't have that is worth the price?" adding, "We have a lot of diversity within the U.S. already." King used that same interview to call Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor George Soros a force behind the so-called "Great Replacement," a conspiracy theory prevalent on the far-right that white Europeans are being deliberately "replaced" by people of color in a scheme fomented by Jews.
While national party leaders and donors had, at best, only mildly rebuked King for years, they finally went further this time. The Minnesota dairy company Land O'Lakes, which was facing calls for boycotts over its donations to King, at last decided that it wouldn't contribute to his cause anymore. Even NRCC chair Steve Stivers, who just a day after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre defended the anti-Semitic ads his committee had been running elsewhere, tweeted out a condemnation.
All of this bad publicity gave Scholten, who hadn’t attracted much notice, an opening. The Democrat ran ads that both hit King for his white nationalist ties but also took him to task for spending taxpayer money on foreign trips and private clubs. King himself only belatedly responded by running his first TV ad about a week-and-a-half before Election Day―a spot that was lazily recycled from his 2014 campaign. Still, it was a big surprise when King managed just a 3-point win, especially since GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds carried his district by a hefty 59-39 margin that same night.
King’s situation grew worse the following January when he asked a New York Times reporter, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?'" Congressional GOP leaders, perhaps sensing that King was much more of a liability than an asset after 2018, proceeded to at last strip him of all of his committee assignments, including his post on the important House Agriculture Committee.
While local Republicans turned a blind eye to King’s racism, his loss of influence was another matter. King himself seemed to recognize this and sought to duct-tape his self-inflicted wounds just a few weeks before primary day by insisting that he’d reached an agreement with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that would lead to his committee assignments being reinstated. McCarthy eventually got around to contradicting him, and outside groups continued to hammer King as a weak congressman who couldn’t help Trump or his district. Ultimately, this argument—backed by a massive spending advantage—was enough to finally end King’s career.
Want more great elections coverage like this? Sign up for our free daily newsletter, the Morning Digest.