SIOUX CITY — After nearly 18 years representing a heavily Republican district, Rep. Steve King is fighting to hold off a well-financed fellow GOP challenger in Tuesday’s primary that’s shaping up as a referendum on the controversial congressman’s effectiveness.
Of the four challengers on the ballot, state Sen. Randy Feenstra, of Hull, has emerged as the biggest threat to King, easily outraising the incumbent and the rest of the field and picking up support from a long list of conservative groups and politicians including former Gov. Terry Branstad and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.
As a slew of campaign ads tout Feenstra’s conservative credentials and blast King, the embattled incumbent says he’s relying on connections made over 18 years in office with rank-and-file Republicans who recognize his defense of immigration policy enforcement, gun rights and anti-abortion policies.
“People know me. In one of the polls, my name ID (identification) is the same as (President) Donald Trump’s,” King said in a recent interview with the Journal. Feenstra “gets a lot more press than I do, but I guess I’ve been here a little longer. I think that’s alright. People know what I stand for and believe in, and I hope they remember the type of work that I have the blessing to do for them.”
Feenstra and his allies have emphasized King’s loss of influence in Congress. Last year, GOP House leaders stripped King of all his committee assignments as punishment for published comments in which he questioned when terms like “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” became offensive.
In his ads, Feenstra promises to “deliver” in a way King cannot on key conservative principles.
“I’ve been a proven conservative leader, (based) on what I’ve done in the (Iowa) Senate ... I wrote the largest tax reduction in state history,” Feenstra said in an interview with the Journal.
Some polls show close race
In a series of virtual campaign forums, King has pushed back on suggestions that his clout has diminished. At a May 12 forum in Spencer, he insisted that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had agreed to a process by which King could get “exoneration” and regain his committee posts, including his spot on the House Agriculture Committee, widely considered a plumb assignment for a congressman representing a district with some of the nation’s largest agriculture interests.
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But McCarthy dismissed King’s claim, saying his white supremacist comments “cannot be exonerated.” Members of the House Steering Committee also vowed to keep King sidelined even if he survived the primary and got re-elected this fall.
Feenstra said King’s false claims about reclaiming his committee posts show the incumbent is “desperate” and in danger of losing.
The limited polling in the race suggests that Feenstra is within striking distance of winning. An internal poll from Feenstra’s campaign released May 20 showed the challenger up 2 points, 41 to 39 percent. An independent poll conducted May 22 for the Iowa Standard, a conservative website, had King up by 14 points over Feenstra, 45.57 percent to 31.75 percent.
That poll, conducted by a Washington, D.C., firm, had the four other challengers in low double or single digits. Jeremy Taylor, a former state legislator and Woodbury County supervisor from Sioux City, was at 11.96 percent; Bret Richards, a former mayor of Irwin, was at 5.98 percent; and Okoboji real estate developer Steve Reeder was at 4.74 percent.
If no candidate receives at least 35 percent support in Tuesday’s primary, the nominee would be picked at a special nominating convention this summer.
Challengers focus on effectiveness
King, who turned 71 on Thursday, has repeatedly insisted the New York Times reporter misquoted him in the January 2019 article, which led to a national backlash. Besides Feenstra, the other challengers seemed to agree with him at a recent candidate forum in Des Moines. Like Feenstra, the other challengers have not directly referred to the white nationalist controversy, but they have questioned whether King can still effectively represent the district.
Taylor likened King to a starting quarterback “whose time has come and gone.” But Taylor has spent much more of his campaign trying to poke holes in Feenstra’s readiness to wear the conservative mantle. In particular, Taylor has claimed Feenstra has “alienated” conservatives over gun legislation in the Iowa Senate, a charge Feenstra has denied.
Taylor, who was forced to resign his seat on the Woodbury County board earlier this year over residency issues, said he’s focusing particularly hard on his home county, the most populous in the district. As much as one-fifth of all primary votes could come from here.
Feenstra’s primary strategy includes turning out voters in his home county of Sioux, the most Republican county in the state.
Though acknowledging they’re underdogs, Richards and Reeder are aiming to pull off an upset.
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Richards said the district voters he’s spoken to don’t like “career politicians” such as King, nor do they want the “establishment candidate,” such as Feenstra. He dismissed that the primary competition boils down to those two, noting there has been no true independent poll on the race.
An Army veteran and second generation business owner of many convenience stores and restaurants in west central Iowa, Richards said he’s well-versed to pass legislation that would help reduce health care costs, particularly medicine costs, and push out a package that would update America’s infrastructure.
Reeder said Iowans want new representation, because too many congressional members get entrenched in Washington, and he hopes to be among an influx of “patriots” to join Congress in 2021.
“You put service before self, and you go in to serve,” Reeder said.
Steve King lags in fundraising
While updated 48-hour campaign finance reports have been filed in recent days, the last three-month reporting period showed Feenstra’s fundraising dwarfed that of King and the other challengers.
For the entire year of 2019, King amassed $263,322, far below the $721,427 raised by Feenstra. As the year ended, Feenstra had nearly a half-million dollars in cash available, or 15 times King’s figure.
That gap continued into the first part of this year. Feenstra ended March 30 with $415,651 available to spend on campaign activities, while King had $26,773.
Additionally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent $200,000 on the race pointing out King’s loss of his committee assignments. Defending Main Street, a center-right political action agency, committed more for direct mail pieces, district-wide phone calls and micro-targeted social media advertising in support of Feenstra. Defending Main Street is the first national independent-expenditure group to support one of King’s four challengers, and the group for the first time endorsed a challenger of an incumbent Republican.
Due to continued COVID 19-related worries, election officials have encouraged voters to cast absentee ballots, rather than show up at the polls to vote. More than 40,000 ballots have been returned in the 4th District, which already exceeds the total votes cast in the 2018 Republican primary, when King easily beat back an intra-party challenge from Cyndi Hanson of Sioux City.
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King appeared more vulnerable to a primary challenge following his narrow 3-point victory over Democrat J.D. Scholten in 2018. Scholten, who is running again this year, is unopposed in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. On Thursday, he relaunched his campaign ad narrated by Kevin Costner, the star of the “Field of Dreams” film.