The easiest explanation for Iowa US Rep. Steve King’s loss in a Republican primary Tuesday night was that voters rejected his xenophobic and white supremacist statements.
It’s also not exactly the right explanation.
King’s near-double-digit defeat at the hands of state Sen. Randy Feenstra was, without doubt, influenced by a series of comments by the congressman over the past five (or so) years in which he said things like “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive” and “what does this diversity bring that we don’t already have?”
But King won primaries and general elections in 2014, 2016 and 2018 – even as he was making these comments and establishing himself on the absolute outer fringe of the immigration issue. (In a 2014 confrontation with a woman who had been brought to the United States as a small child, King told her “you’re very good at English. You can understand the English language, so don’t act like you don’t” and “I am really sorry you come from a lawless country. I hope that you can have a happy life.”)
So, what changed? In early 2019, following his questioning of when “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” became “offensive,” King was stripped of all committee assignments by Republican leaders who recognized that his presence had become a giant anchor around their necks, politically speaking.
What that meant for King was that he, well, just didn’t have that much to do in Congress – and, more importantly – had zero influence either within his party or among the broader Congress.
King couldn’t really influence legislation without committee assignments. When a piece of legislation was put on the floor, all he could do was vote up or down.
And it’s that lack of efficacy that doomed him, as his opponents – both Feenstra and outside groups – hammered away on the idea of King as powerless.
“Whatever you think of Steve King, it’s clear he’s no longer effective,” said longtime Iowa social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats in a Feenstra ad. “He can’t deliver for President Trump and he can’t advance our conservative values.” And the Chamber of Commerce blasted King in ads for being kicked off the House Agriculture Committee, making it impossible for him to advocate for farmers amid the hit they have taken from the coronavirus pandemic.
By the end of the campaign, voters had been told time and again that King was, effectively, collecting a six-figure salary while not doing all that much. And well, people didn’t like that. At all.
So it’s not entirely accurate to suggest that King lost because voters rejected his deeply xenophobic and racist views. If that had been the case, King would have lost in 2016 or even 2018 when Democrat J.D. Scholten, who is running again, came within a few points of the incumbent but fell short.
What’s more accurate is to say that King lost because his history of controversial comments led congressional Republicans to ostracize him and strip him of committee assignments. And that voters decided they wanted an elected official who could, you know, actually represent them.