Nine-term Congressman Steve King of Iowa will lose his Republican primary race to state Sen. Randy Feenstra on Tuesday, CNN projected, after King’s racist comments led to his ostracization in Washington and Feenstra mobilized conservative Republicans to his insurgent campaign.
“I called Randy Feenstra a little bit ago and conceded the race to him,” King said in a video posted to Facebook early Wednesday morning. “And I pointed out that there’s some powerful elements in the swamp that he’s going to have an awfully hard time pushing back against.”
The primary fight was an undeniable referendum on King – not on his conservatism, but on his effectiveness in office. His lack of power, far more than his specific words and history of remarks on race, became a central issue in this year’s race, with opponents arguing that he is unable to represent their views in the House or to the administration.
King, an anti-immigration hardliner, had a well-documented history of controversial statements during his nine terms in office. But only after a New York Times interview in January 2019, in which the congressman questioned how “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization” became offensive, did House Republican leaders rebuke him by stripping him of his committee assignments. Last June, the Trump administration barred him from Air Force One when the President visited his state.
King has said that his words have been mischaracterized and taken out of context, blaming the media and Republican leaders for leading a vendetta against him.
“The Never Trumpers are the people who ginned this all up,” King said in a recent debate, speaking with an air of defiance about the Republicans “who want Steve King out of the way.”
In his concession speech, King said those forces pushed him out of office.
“This comes from an effort to push out the strongest voice for full spectrum, constitutional Christian conservatism that exists in the United States Congress,” King said.
Feenstra was viewed as King’s toughest opponent in a five-way race that included former state legislator Jeremy Taylor, businessmen Steve Reeder and Army veteran Bret Richards.
“I am truly humbled by the outpouring of support over the past 17 months that made tonight possible and I thank Congressman King for his decades of public service,” Feenstra said in a statement. “As we turn to the General Election, I will remain focused on my plans to deliver results for the families, farmers and communities of Iowa. But first, we must make sure this seat doesn’t land in the hands of Nancy Pelosi and her liberal allies in Congress. Tomorrow, we get back to work.”
Feenstra had won marquee endorsements and financial support from conservative groups in Washington, including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Right to Life Committee. He told voters he wanted a seat on the House Agriculture Committee – something King no longer has. And he boasted a much greater campaign war chest, reporting over $415,000 on hand at the end of March compared to fewer than $30,000 for King.
“The 4th District needs a seat at the table – an effective conservative voice,” Feenstra said in a recent debate. “Our district, our President, deserve an effective conservative leader in Congress.”
GOP National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted congratulations to Feenstra early Wednesday and said that “King’s white supremacist rhetoric is totally inconsistent with the Republican Party, and I’m glad Iowa Republicans rejected him at the ballot box.”
The biggest uncertainty heading into Tuesday, according to Republicans strategists in Iowa, was the number of absentee ballots. For the first time, all Iowa voters were sent request forms for mail-in ballots and as of Tuesday, over 70,000 Republican ballots had been requested in the district, with over 60,000 returned, according to the office of Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate.
Two years ago, fewer than 3,000 absentee ballots were recorded. The dramatic uptick in absentee ballots appeared to help doom the longtime congressman as thousands of new and infrequent Republican voters decided to participate in the primary.
David Kochel, a veteran Iowa strategist who supported Feenstra, told CNN that over 55% of Republicans who voted in the election had voted in one or none of the past four primaries. “It was these low frequency primary voters that carried the day,” Kochel said.
Bob Vander Plaats, a former King supporter and an influential Christian conservative, endorsed Feenstra, worried that if King won the primary that Democrats would have a better shot to not only win his deep red district in northwest Iowa but also defeat President Donald Trump and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst. Democrat J.D. Scholten, a former professional baseball player, came within three points of beating King in 2018 and is running again.
Last week, Vander Plaats told CNN there had been a “growing fatigue” with King in the 4th District and a “gradual clarity” that “his voice is no longer desired at the table.”
King responded that Vander Plaats and Feenstra are sacrificing their principles “in their misguided effort to shut down real conservatives and hand this district over to RINOs and NeverTrumpers.”
In addition to a tweet congratulating Feenstra, Trump called him on Wednesday.
“Thanks to @realDonaldTrump for the phone call! We are going to run hard, win in November, and elect a congressman who delivers. #Feenstradelivers #IA04,” Feenstra wrote in a tweet.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny and Manu Raju contributed to this report.