Don’t Look Now, But Steve King Could Lose His Primary

By Pat Rynard

May 21, 2020

Every single election cycle, hope springs eternal that this will finally be the year that Rep. Steve King gets his electoral comeuppance. And every single election cycle, those dreams are quickly dashed in Iowa’s deep-red 4th Congressional District.

But there’s a growing feeling in Iowa political circles that King’s brush with defeat in his 2018 race was not a fluke occurrence, and that the stars may be aligning for an upset loss in the Republican primary on June 2. State Sen. Randy Feenstra appears to have real momentum in a campaign that’s been a completely one-sided affair, where King has barely done any campaigning and has no money to respond to Feenstra’s ads.

Some started to sour on the chances of a King primary defeat when the Republican field remained needlessly large after the filing deadline. Though Feenstra appeared to have the only real path to victory, three other underfunded Republicans remained in and on the ballot. Even Sioux City’s Jeremy Taylor stayed in, despite losing his Woodbury County supervisor seat in an embarrassing voter registration controversy in the middle of his 4th District campaign.

It would be difficult enough to unseat King, the thinking went, that four challengers splitting the anti-King vote, even if some got just a few percentage points, would prove too much for any one of them to win more votes than the incumbent.

But as the campaign has played out, all the new developments have gone in Feenstra’s favor, and King has rarely done anything to help his situation.

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Here’s all the factors that might come together to send King packing before the general election this year:

Lopsided Fundraising And Ad Spending

King has never been a strong fundraiser, but his campaign bank account has collapsed ever since losing his committee assignments in early 2019. He has raised only $301,372 this cycle, and was nearly broke with just $26,773 cash on hand at the end of the first quarter.

Feenstra, meanwhile, brought in $844,299 through the last quarter, saving up about half of it for a final advertising push in April and May. He’s currently up on TV in the Sioux City, Waterloo and Mason City media markets (and previously ran some Des Moines market ads), while King has been silent with no kind of advertising this cycle.

Feenstra is pushing a message that he “can deliver” when King can’t. “Steve King couldn’t protect our farmers and couldn’t defend President Trump from impeachment,” the latest ad says.

With the coronavirus pandemic sidelining in-person campaigning, that’s hobbled King’s only other opportunity to get in front of voters.

The power of incumbency is strong, but this is turning out to be a test of what happens when the incumbent simply doesn’t run a campaign and his challengers do.

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Wishful Polling

Public polling has been sadly lacking in this race, but two recent polls have good news for Feenstra… you just have to decide if you trust them or not.

Feenstra led King 41% to 39% in a poll published yesterday by Public Opinion Strategies, commissioned by the American Future Fund PAC. That group is led by Republican operative Nick Ryan, who has fought to oust King from Congress for several cycles now.

Meanwhile, Feenstra’s campaign put out an internal poll ten days ago that had the state legislator trailing King by just three points, 36% to 39%. It had Feenstra leading in the Sioux City market, 44% to 36%.

Both surveys give hope that the feeling of King’s decline isn’t just an illusion, but it would certainly be more reassuring if we had polling data conducted by a neutral party.

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Outside Groups Rally For Feenstra

Wishing to finally be rid of King, several national and state Republican-aligned groups have jumped in to assist Feenstra. The most interesting development came yesterday with a new TV ad going up that features Bob Vander Plaats, the well-known Iowa social conservative leader, funded by a group with staff ties to Gov. Kim Reynolds.

“Whatever you think of Steve King, it’s clear he’s no longer effective,” Vander Plaats says in it. “He can’t deliver for President Trump and he can’t advance our conservative values.”

The ad is funded by Priorities for Iowa, a group run by former Reynolds chief of staff Ryan Koopmans and originally created by the Governor’s current chief of staff Sara Craig.

The Republican Main Street Partnership has endorsed Feenstra and its super PAC committed to spending $100,000 on his behalf through direct mail, phone calls and online ads.

Former Iowa Republican House Speaker Chris Rants has also organized a PAC called Iowa Four to raise money to defeat King, and is currently running Facebook ads attacking King.

And the National Association of Realtors has spent over $50,000 on Feenstra’s behalf.

In addition to the spending, Feenstra’s benefited from news of endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce and the National Right To Life.

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King Clearly Getting Nervous

It’s not clear that King even has the money to run a poll, but his actions in recent weeks certainly look like a candidate who’s running scared. His op-ed in the Sioux City Journal yesterday could be charitably described as an unhinged rant focused largely on Feenstra instead of his own accomplishments.

“You’ve seen attack ads and mailers paid for by billionaire coastal RINO-NeverTrumper, globalist, neocon elites,” King wrote. “These are the people who now own Randy Feenstra. He may not know it yet, but I do because I’ve said ‘no’ to them for years. I know their names and their agenda.”

At a recent forum, King spent his introductory remarks tearing into his opponents, pointing his finger at them as he spoke.

But perhaps most telling is that King has occasionally interrupted his nonstop stream of stupid right-wing meme posting on his campaign Facebook page to actually post campaign-related attacks on Feenstra. For those of us who have long followed King’s childish political page, supposedly run by his son, that’s the biggest warning sign of all.

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King Shoots Himself In The Foot At The End

When King nearly lost in 2018 after news broke days out from the election that he had met with far-right Austrian political leaders while on a Holocaust memorial trip, many Democrats wondered, after all the awful things King has said over the years, why did that nearly put voters over the edge?

In fairness, meeting with a party with historical Nazi ties during a trip funded by a Holocaust nonprofit is really bad, and to some voters it cuts differently than his usual racist language. But you got the sense that what really hurt King was that voters’ gut response was, “Ugh, enough already, Steve King.” For whatever reason, even if all his other statements and actions were bad too, this was just the final straw that broke the dam in voter opinion. Given that it happened days before the election, there wasn’t much time for King to rebound or change the subject.

The biggest danger for King is that something like this happens again, that he sticks his foot in his mouth in a big way right before the election and voters throw up their hands in exhaustion with the congressman’s antics.


King came very close to providing that moment last week.

At a 4th District candidate forum last Monday, King claimed that he had an agreement with House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy to get “exonerated” and reclaim his lost committee assignments. Predictably, reporters asked McCarthy about that, and he said no such deal had been made, and that he doubted King would get committee assignments even after speaking to the steering committee.

So with weeks to go until the election, King lied or at best misrepresented the likelihood he’d serve on committees next year in order to win his primary. He also drove a news cycle that reminded all his constituents that he lost those committees in the first place.

Will that alone be enough? Possibly not, and there’s time between now and the election for the conversation to change. But that’s also time for King to say something else idiotic that sours voters right at the end.

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Absentee Uncertainty

That being said… when King made those comments, it actually was election day for many Republicans in the 4th District already. Absentee ballot requests have soared this year with the pandemic. As of Wednesday, 31,098 Republicans in King’s district had already sent in their ballots. Altogether, 63,457 Republicans have requested an absentee ballot there. In the 2018 primary, just 38,969 votes were cast in total for the Republican 4th District primary.

No one is certain how this turnout surge will impact any race. It could turn out less-engaged voters who will simply vote for the incumbent they’ve known for a long time. Or it could mean the primary electorate isn’t as dominated by ideological voters, with more moderate Republicans turning out and casting a vote against King.

If nothing else, even if King does survive his primary, it’s looking like he’ll emerge from it extremely wounded, while Democrat J.D. Scholten, who nearly defeated him in 2018, is sitting on a pile of cash and has been campaigning for much of the past year.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 5/21/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.



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