The only member of Congress known for lamenting the decline of white Americans and making racist remarks about the size of immigrants’ calf muscles is out of a job next year.
Rep. Steve King was defeated in a five-person primary Tuesday by a fellow Republican, Iowa state Sen. Randy Feenstra, who had received support from a national GOP establishment that finally invested deeply in an effort to oust King. Their success brings to an end the two-decade congressional career of a man who managed to make himself a notorious national figure and persona non grata within the GOP even during the boundary-pushing Trump era of American politics.
Back in 2016, GOP presidential hopefuls trying to make their mark in the Iowa caucus fought each other for the chance to stand with King, whose endorsement used to be political gold in the early voting state. When King backed Sen. Ted Cruz—who ultimately won the Iowa caucus—the conservative Texan celebrated the show of support by tweeting he was “beyond honored to receive” the endorsement and named King a national campaign co-chairman.
Since then, King has become as loyal a supporter of President Donald Trump as anyone in the House GOP conference. But long-simmering discomfort within the party over King’s extreme views began to boil over last year, when he lamented to The New York Times that “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?”
House GOP leaders responded by taking away King’s committee assignments. “Steve’s remarks are beneath the dignity of the Party of Lincoln and the United States of America,” House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said in a January 2019 statement. “His comments call into question whether he will treat all Americans equally, without regard for race and ethnicity.”
King stewed—and continued to put his foot in his mouth. Months later, the GOP pariah mused that civilization wouldn’t be possible without rape or incest. “What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled out anyone who was a product of rape or incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?” King said during an August 2019 Iowa appearance.
Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Congresswoman and member of House GOP leadership, promptly called for King to resign. “As I’ve said before, it’s time for him to go,” Cheney tweeted after King’s comments. The people of Iowa’s 4th congressional district deserve better.”
Yet in a defiant effort, King made clear he would run for another term in Congress despite being shunned by nearly his entire party and very little money—just $32,000, according to his most recent campaign finance report.
King instead hung his hopes on his devoted base of supporters who had sent him to Congress for nine terms knowing exactly who they were electing.
It turns out many of them were ready for a change.
While King faltered, Feenstra locked up the support of powerful Republican-aligned groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had finally lost all patience with King. The Chamber spent over $200,000 to take down King, while other conservative groups like the National Right to Life Committee invested to oppose him, too. Even five of King’s House GOP colleagues backed Feenstra by donating to his campaign—an exceedingly rare sight on Capitol Hill, where fellow incumbents usually avoid actively working against their own.
In his campaign, Feenstra largely avoided sustained criticism of King’s racist or extreme remarks, preferring to focus on his irrelevance as a lawmaker. McCarthy’s move to strip King committee assignments, for example, banished him from the House Agriculture Committee, a key perch for the Iowan to exert influence on behalf of his heavily agricultural district.
With King gone, Washington Republicans—some of whom have wanted King gone well before his most recent string of bizarre comments—can breathe a sigh of relief that they’ll no longer have to grapple with the toxic association between King and the GOP.
His loss also increases the likelihood the seat will remain red. In 2018, King nearly lost to Democrat J.D. Scholten, a relative political unknown who came within barely three points of victory. It was a shocking near-upset for a district that went for Trump by 27 points in 2016.
With Scholten running again in 2020—and with an impressive $684,000 in the bank—Republicans hope that Feenstra’s more mainstream style will again tip the scales in their favor.