Steve King may have narrowly survived his closest reelection yet earlier this month, but he’s not out of the woods just yet. The firestorm of outrage over his latest dalliances with white supremacists and groups with Neo-Nazi ties appears to be having lasting impacts with both Republican insiders and voters. A primary to King is almost certain in 2020, one that could be well-funded and backed by prominent Republican leaders.
Governor Kim Reynolds warned King last week that he “needs to make a decision if he wants to represent the people and the values of the 4th District or do something else.” Her top campaign adviser Dave Kochel said over the weekend that King “is a drag on our party.” Chuck Grassley even tried to distance himself from the video endorsement he made of King right in the middle of the controversy.
Democrats scoffed at the sudden about-face on King, and for good reason. Now that the election is over, Reynolds and others don’t have to worry about the risky politics of repudiating King while you still need some of his voters. Reynolds’ huge win in the 4th District wiped out Democratic margins in urban counties.
But it would be foolish to completely ignore the very real frustration and anger with King among many top Republicans behind the scenes. The final GOTV rally that both Reynolds and King appeared at together was not planned nor requested by Reynolds’ team, and they weren’t particularly happy about it when they learned King would show up. Neither King or Reynolds’ press releases mentioned the other’s presence at the event put on by the local party.
While Democrats might like to believe that influential Republicans don’t care at all about King’s comments, many do, and the pressure to act has been building. And though they have largely held their tongue in public up to this point, believing in the past that it simply wasn’t worth the fight – that King would win regardless, the dynamics of King’s position are much different now.
For one, King threatens to be a major distraction to Joni Ernst’s reelection in 2020. Unlike with Reynolds, who was able to separate herself from federal issues, Ernst will have to comment on why she and King lined up on any number of pieces of legislation (and whether she’ll denounce King’s various outrages of the week).
For another, conservative publications like The Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page have come out strong against King. That can help give other Republicans wanting to drop the congressman some conservative cover for doing so.
And it’s no sure bet that the voting behaviors of the 4th District are suddenly going to snap back to their pre-2018 feelings on King. He very well could lose to another Democratic challenger in 2020 that works just as hard as J.D. Scholten did. Voters there seemed to finally say “enough already” with the fallout from King’s Austria trip. If he continues to make headlines (and you know he will), that “enough already” feeling will only grow.
King’s fundraising also isn’t going to get any easier. Scholten got so close in part because he flew under the radar and avoided getting hit with any negative ads. King’s next challenger may not get as much of a free pass, but where is King going to raise the money to get on TV? He’s even more radioactive now than he was before, the national Republican committee refused to help him this cycle, and several of the corporate PACs that contributed to him have already been pressured into not sending him checks in the future.
That also makes a serious primary challenge that more viable. Rick Bertrand gave it a shot in 2016, but that campaign never really got off the ground, didn’t have enough prominent Republic support and came at a time before King’s total implosion.
If Republicans can find a wealthy businessman in the 4th District to challenge King, they would have a real chance at ousting him in a primary. Having a financial advantage in a 4th District race is key, but it has to be a large advantage. The district is split into six separate media markets. The Des Moines and Sioux City markets cover the bulk of it, but to really score a knock-out punch, you have to also cover the counties in the Rochester, Cedar Rapids and Omaha markets.
The other question would be whether top Republican leaders in Iowa would publicly endorse that primary opponent. If folks want to make a real run at King, they should probably go all-in with it and not try to equivocate. Reynolds and Ernst could always quietly direct donors behind the scenes to King’s Republican challenger, but a public signal from one of them or Grassley to Republican voters that it’s alright to abandon King could seal his fate.
Another thing for Republicans to take into consideration is redistricting. The next map for the 2022 election will likely have some sort of conservative district that covers most of Western Iowa, but you’d want to have a new incumbent in place for that year.
Going forward, King’s own continued behavior will likely only worsen his situation. Reynolds’ warning may have been aimed at getting him to tamp down his actions (and you’d think nearly losing a reelection would cause most rational people to reflect on their choices), but everyone knows he won’t change. Even in the days right after the election, King got in a Twitter battle with The Weekly Standard over a quote he had comparing immigrants to dirt, insisting he didn’t say it. The magazine released the audio showing he clearly had, generating yet another embarrassing round of press for King.
It’s not going to get any better for King from here. His continued survival this year frustrated many in Iowa and around the country, but that narrow victory likely set the stage for his ouster from Congress.
by Pat Rynard