Representative Steve King’s fellow Republicans have made him a pariah in Washington.
Now his Iowa constituents will decide if it’s time to bring down the curtain on the nine-term congressman, who long stoked the immigration wars with racist remarks until he was disciplined last year in the House.
The problem for mainstream Republicans who would like to retire Mr. King in a June 2 party primary is that, with four challengers in the race, all sensing an opportunity and aggressively campaigning, the anti-King vote will be split four ways.
“Not to be Captain Obvious, but four people in the race always helps the incumbent,” said Rick Bertrand, who challenged Mr. King in the Republican primary in 2016 but is not running this year. “If this was a mano a mano race, King would be in trouble right now.”
In January 2019, Republican leaders stripped Mr. King of his House committee assignments after he suggested that white nationalism was not offensive. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, urged Mr. King to “find another line of work.” Mr. King defiantly remained.
His penchant for incurring the wrath of party leaders has marked his campaign. Over the weekend he raised the stakes by claiming to have recorded a phone call with Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, and contradicted Mr. McCarthy’s public statements.
Mr. King had told Iowans at a debate on May 11 that Mr. McCarthy had promised him “exoneration” and pledged to recommend “to put all of my committees back with all of my seniority.”
There was just one problem. Mr. McCarthy denied any such thing. “Congressman King’s comments cannot be exonerated, and I never said that,” he told reporters four days later. Should Mr. King win re-election, his committee assignments will be reviewed at the start of the next Congress by the Republican Steering Committee, “just like every single member,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Talking to members on the steering committee, I think he’d get the same answer that he got before.”
But on Saturday, during a candidate forum, Mr. King effectively called Mr. McCarthy untruthful. Brandishing papers that he said were transcripts of a phone call he had recorded with Mr. McCarthy, he insisted that the Republican leader told him in April he would lobby for the return of his committee assignments. “All Kevin McCarthy really needs to do is do what he said,” Mr. King said.
A spokesman for Mr. McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.
Even though Mr. King’s long history of inflammatory comments about immigration is not far removed from President Trump’s own rhetoric, Republicans are worried that with Mr. King on the ballot in November, a safe seat for the party could fall to Democrats.
“J.D. Scholten is waiting,” one of Mr. King’s challengers, Jeremy Taylor, said at a debate last week, referring to Mr. King’s general election opponent from 2018, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. “He cannot be the representative in this district.”
Mr. Scholten came within three percentage points of flipping the seat, in a Northwest Iowa district where Mr. Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016. A rematch would bring a flood of outside money to Mr. Scholten, a former minor league baseball player, but his chances would be considerably lower if he faces one of Mr. King’s primary challengers.
“A generic Republican should win convincingly,” said Dane Nealson, a Republican City Council member in Nevada, Iowa, in Mr. King’s district. “It speaks to King’s ineffectiveness as a congressman and embarrassment to our state, more than anything, that it was that close last time.”
If neither Mr. King nor any of his four challengers receives at least 35 percent of the vote on June 2, the nominee will be picked at a district convention. Convention attendees are drawn from the party’s most committed activists, and Mr. King is thought to have an advantage under that scenario.
Mr. King’s closest rival, Randy Feenstra, has been endorsed by mainstream Republican-leaning groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Right to Life Committee. A state senator, Mr. Feenstra has raised far more money than Mr. King, reporting $415,000 in cash on hand in the latest reporting period, compared to Mr. King’s $26,000. An internal poll that Mr. Feenstra released on May 11 showed Mr. King leading the field with 39 percent, closely trailed by Mr. Feenstra at 36 percent, a gap within the margin of error.
An unknown factor in the race that most likely favors Mr. King’s challengers is that all Iowa voters were sent request forms for mail-in ballots. Even as Mr. Trump vigorously attacks mail voting, falsely claiming it leads to widespread fraud, the Iowa secretary of state reports that requests for mail ballots in the Fourth District have been strong. They reflect an interest in the race among a broader range of voters than the usual committed partisans who turn out in primaries.
The number of Republican ballots returned as of Tuesday, 40,400, already exceeds the total number of votes cast in the 2018 Republican primary in the district, when only 2,679 votes were mailed in.
“I would expect this primary electorate to be much bigger than normally votes, which means you’re pulling in people a little outside your hard-core base,” said Brett Barker, the Republican chairman of Story County, who is neutral in the race. “I don’t think there’s a clear favorite.”
At a debate last Thursday, held virtually with the five Republicans speaking from their homes, Mr. King’s challengers assured voters they were every bit as conservative as he was on guns, abortion and “the Trump tax cuts,” and they pledged to lend full-throated support to the president. But several hammered the theme that voters no longer have effective representation in Congress, especially on the Agriculture Committee, because Mr. King forfeited his committee assignments.
“Our Fourth District desperately needs a seat at the table, that we can have an effective conservative voice,” Mr. Feenstra said, without accusing Mr. King directly.
Indeed, no one brought up Mr. King’s history of incendiary remarks that led to his removal from the committees, including his comparing Hispanic immigrants to dogs, dirt and drug mules “with calves the size of cantaloupes.” Instead, they sought to assure voters of their bona fides on core conservative issues, as well as some not-so-core ones.
“One thing that I’m opposed to is this contact tracing or these draconian measures by some of these more liberal governors,” said Steve Reeder, a businessman in the race, speaking of virus mitigation efforts.
Even though immigrants are a crucial part of Iowa’s rural economy, staffing dairies, farm co-ops and slaughterhouses, where they have suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus, the topic of immigration arose only when candidates enthusiastically backed Mr. Trump’s border wall or opposed “sanctuary cities.”
The decision by Republicans in the House to discipline Mr. King came after he told The New York Times, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” He later said his meaning had been misconstrued and he only meant to question why the term “Western civilization” was viewed as offensive.
Before the 2018 election, Mr. King endorsed a candidate for Toronto mayor with neo-Nazi ties and, in an interview with an Austrian publication, seemed to endorse the “great replacement,” a conspiracy theory pushed by white supremacists.
As he faces his toughest race since he was first elected in 2002, Mr. King has tried to tap conservatives’ anger at the national media by blaming The Times for his outcast status in the House. At the May 11 debate, he accused his primary challengers of seizing opportunistically on his troubles.
“That is why we have this primary right now, is because The New York Times has thrown a wrench into the works and political opportunists have decided that they want to jump into this thing hoping that I am wounded,” he said.
Mr. King did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But at the candidate forum on Saturday, he explained why. “We had a discussion yesterday” about answering a reporter’s query from The Times, Mr. King said. “As tempting as it is to give him an answer, we don’t want to give him another excuse to do another story.”