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Republicans are lining up to primary Steve King

King's one major selling point may soon become his downfall.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 28: Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on November 28, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 28: Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on November 28, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In his nearly two decades as a congressman representing Iowa’s 4th district, Steve King has become famous for precisely one thing: being a white supremacist.

King has re-tweeted neo-Nazis and refused to apologize for it, endorsed a white supremacist fringe candidate in the Toronto mayoral race, made frequent trips to visit the far-right government of Austria, and, in the run-up to last year’s midterms, referred to immigrants as “dirt.”

King’s racist tendencies resurfaced again this Thursday when The New York Times published an interview in which the congressman defended white nationalism. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” he said. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

King’s latest comments triggered a wave of backlash. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) condemned King, tweeting that such an “embrace of racism…has no place in Congress or anywhere.” Another Michigan Republican, Rep. Paul Mitchell, said King’s “embrace of these terms and philosophies” was “fundamentally wrong and offensive.” And Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) called on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to repudiate King’s remarks. Even right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, who has previously defended King’s racist remarks, said King should be censured and primaried.

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In Iowa’s 4th district, similar outrage over King’s continually racist behavior is compounded by yet another problem: he doesn’t actually do anything for the district.

During the 2018 midterms, one of Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten’s main talking points was the fact that in his 16 years in office King had only authored one bill: to rename a post office which was no longer in his district. At a time when Iowa farmers are suffering due to low prices and a trade war with China, that inaction was frustrating to voters.

King still managed to defeat Scholten in the November midterms by a slim margin of 3 percentage points — notably in a district which voted Trump over Clinton by an average of nearly 70 percent in 2016.

But Iowa voters may yet have a chance to push the nine-term congressman out of office. This week, two new challengers, Iowa state Sen. Randy Feenstra and former businessman Bret Richards, declared they would primary King in the district’s 2020 congressional election. And this time around, the combination of King’s white supremacist rhetoric and political inaction, combined with Feenstra’s and Richard’s conservatism, may be just the thing to ring in a new era in the state.

“Today Iowa’s 4th district doesn’t have a voice in Washington, because our current representative’s caustic nature has left us without a seat at the table,” Feenstra said in his announcement on Wednesday. “We don’t need anymore sideshows or distractions, we need to start winning for Iowa’s families.”

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Richards expressed similar frustrations. “Living here my whole life, it’s frustrating to see how ineffective he has been,” he told The Des Moines Register on Thursday. “For the 4th district, we do not have great representation in Congress. And we need it.”

Whether either of these challengers would be a marked change from King is unclear. On his website, Feenstra proudly talks about his record cutting taxes, supporting pro-life causes, and passing suppressive voter ID legislation. Richards has been less forthcoming about his stances on traditionally conservative issues, but did tell the Register that King needed to answer for his racist rhetoric, promising he would not “embarrass the state” as King had, if elected.

What the early primary declarations do prove is that, even within the Republican Party — and despite its outward refusal to condemn King’s nationalism in the past — the sharks are circling.

Already, King has lost the support of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who announced Wednesday she would not support King in the primary. But the long-running congressman seems no more eager to make amends for his behavior, despite the pressure.

Both Feenstra and Richards may be able to succeed where figures like Scholten could not. Despite his emphasis on agriculture, family farms, and reforming the tax code to benefit working-class Americans, Scholten was unable to convince enough voters to swing to the center, to remove King from office. Now, with two Republicans in the mix, vying to do the same, there’s a higher chance one of them may just tip the scales enough to persuade Republicans enough is enough.

Whatever happens, it’s clear King — once comfortable in his seat on Capitol Hill — is already on the defensive.

In a written statement Wednesday, King bitterly critized Feenstra’s 2020 campaign, calling him a pawn of “establishment puppeteers” and suggesting he would bring nothing but “warmed over” liberal talking points to Congress.

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And on Thursday, amid the backlash to his comments in the Times, King, who typically refuses to walk back any of his extreme rhetoric, attempted to do damage control, in the form of a half-hearted apology: “I want to make one thing abundantly clear; I reject those labels and the evil ideology that they define,” he said.