After two straight weeks of Steve King racial controversies, much of the country is once again asking: how on earth does this man keep getting reelected? It’s an understandable conundrum about a Congressman who displays a Confederate flag on his desk, who repeatedly defended his belief that white Christians contributed more to civilization than any other “sub-group,” along with his many other past controversial statements.
King has made a career out of outlandish and inflammatory rhetoric, often on racial topics. It’s diminished his role in his party in Congress and he’s come under criticism from fellow Republicans at times.
And yet he keeps getting re-elected in his Western Iowa district. He won with 62% of the vote in 2002, 63% in 2004, 59% in 2006, 60% in 2008, 66% in 2010, 53% in 2012 and 62% in 2014. He’s beaten well-financed, well-known challengers with nearly as much ease as the Democratic candidates with few funds or little name ID. His district became less Republican in 2012 when redistricting picked up Democratic-leaning cities of Ames and Mason City, but it’s still a R+5 district on the Cook partisan voting index – doable, but difficult.
Why don’t voters get turned off from his outrageous statements? I asked Republicans in Emmetsburg, Iowa, before a town hall meeting with Senator Chuck Grassley this past week to find out.
“I feel he does a great job myself, I like him,” said Ron Graettinger. “I contact him on things because I’m a county supervisor, and he gets back to me. And I like his morality. We need God back in our schools.”
“He stands for our values, he stands behind what we need in business and agriculture,” said Pam Perry, who left the Democratic Party recently over concerns with Obamacare and Benghazi. “I met him, he’s one of the most charismatic persons I’ve ever met. I thought his views were a little bit toned down from meeting him.”
A few of the voters, like Perry, fell into the stereotype many outsiders might think about conservative Western Iowans.
“Yes! Yes! States’ rights!” Perry exclaimed, pumping her fist in the air when told King displays a Confederate flag on his desk. “A lot of things should stay within the state. The Confederate flag, I’m for states’ rights. To me, it stands for state’s rights. And yes, I have some black in my background. And my great-great grandfather is Robert E. Lee.”
Before the Grassley event started, Perry and a group of conservative women in their 50s and 60s discussed the recent Fox News controversy with Roger Ailes’ sexual harassment accusations. They didn’t seem like the type that would vote for a Democrat anytime soon.
“I knew the sexual harassment was going on at Fox, the way those women reporters were dressing,” Perry said.
“They’re dressing like they’re going out clubbing. What did they expect?” another woman commented.
But others had their misgivings.
“I have mixed feelings on him,” said Gennifer Scott. “I’m probably 90% for him, I don’t always agree with everything he says. But I think his basic fundamental stands are good. I think it shows a lot of Midwestern ethics and morals.”
Scott was one of the few that had actually heard about his race/civilization comments, which she wasn’t very comfortable with.
“But I will reserve judgement until I know exactly what is said,” she said. “Because, no offense to the media, but it does get skewed. So until I can research it and find out exactly what was said and the context it was said in, I’ll reserve judgement.”
That seems to be at the heart of King’s resiliency with his constituents – many of them just plain doubt media reports about his comments, even when they relay word-for-word what he said. I worked in Western Iowa two cycles and have seen King’s races up close. Many times I ran into voters who outright didn’t believe that King had said what he actually did. It was all the liberal media distorting it. And in a way, King’s comments are often so over-the-top, it’s understandable that voters who have been conditioned by Fox News to distrust all other media outlets would question the reports.
And that’s if they ever hear them at all. Indeed, only three of the dozen people I spoke with in Emmetsburg had heard of either of the two recent controversies.
Craig Merrill, another Palo Alto County supervisor, said he liked King for his support of Iowa agriculture. But he was visibly taken aback when informed about King’s Confederate flag and racial statements.
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” Merrill said. “I wasn’t aware of any of that, I really wasn’t. It does not appeal to me. I don’t think we need to be displaying the Confederate flag, there’s no reason for that. That’s his nature. Everybody’s a package. None of us are perfect. Some things about a given candidate we may not like, but there’s more positive parts to them.”
“Well, I stay away from those things,” said Mary Beth Thomas, who likes King because he shares her Catholic values, but added she prefer politicians not rock the boat in that way.
“Yeah, he said that was a mistake in how he said it,” said Graettinger of the racial comments (King did not actually say it was mistake). “I read it, I didn’t take it too much. Everyone can make a mistake. The Confederate flag, I didn’t hear about that. Well, so what?”
And really, how would people in Western Iowa know about many of these controversies?
Consider their news sources. The Emmetsburg Reporter didn’t write a story on it. Nor the Fort Dodge Messenger. Nor the Cherokee Chronicle Times. Nor the Spencer Daily Reporter. Fox News did one story on the civilization comments. Local talk radio had little to nothing on it. If conservative voters in Western Iowa have few Democratic friends, it’s unlikely the story would have come up in their social media news feeds.
There are some places, like in Sioux City, Storm Lake and Mason City, where the local papers report more on politics, but most are simply too understaffed to do that type of coverage. That’s led to lack of local political knowledge among many – only one person I talked with had even heard of Kim Weaver, King’s Democratic opponent.
While King’s provocative quotes can quickly travel around the country and world, the voters back in his home district rarely hear of them. And even when they do, party loyalty seems to trump all, letting voters find excuses. The biggest complaint that came up about King wasn’t about any incendiary quotes, but his support for Ted Cruz.
I asked Graettinger, the county supervisor who later questioned Grassley on what schools had to provide for “the transgenders,” if there was anything King could say that would make him not vote for him.
“Probably not,” he replied. “Because I think he’s really put a lot of effort into what he’s done. I don’t worry about some of this stuff that comes out. Everyone can’t do everything right all the time.”
by Pat Rynard