Iowa Dems See Upset in Pennsylvania As Sign of Steve King’s Vulnerability

Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly defeated his Republican rival Tuesday in a congressional district as conservative as Iowa’s 4th — but there are a couple key differences between the two races

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

In a huge upset Tuesday in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, Democrat Conor Lamb defeated Republican rival Rick Saccone by just over 600 votes. The deeply conservative district, which was given an R+11 rating by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index, was heavily gerrymandered and won by Donald Trump in 2016 by 20 points.

Lamb’s victory has translated to a bit of newfound optimism for Democrats in Iowa who wonder if 2018 could be the year that Iowa’s 4th District Congressman Steve King is finally defeated after easily knocking off all of his previous general election rivals. Last night on Twitter, J.D. Scholten — the Democrat currently best positioned to win the four-way Democratic primary to face King in November — pointed out that the Cook Political Report’s PVI for the district is also R+11. Later that night, fellow contender Leann Jacobsen made the same point.

Indeed, the race appears that it’s shaping up to be King’s toughest challenge since at least 2012, when former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack moved to Ames to take him on. She ended up losing the election by 8 points, although it was a presidential cycle and not a midterm election like 2018, where historically the party out of power has made significant gains. This year, Iowa Democrats seem especially energized; a potentially competitive primary to take on King is out of the ordinary, and there is palpable anger about the actions of both the Trump administration and Statehouse Republicans. In a Des Moines Register poll from last December, 39 percent of 4th District respondents said they would vote Republican in the congressional election compared to 36 percent who said they’d vote Democratic and 14 percent who said they weren’t sure.

Still, there are at least a couple key differences between Tuesday’s election in Pennsylvania and the election this November for Iowa’s 4th District that may be worth considering to temper expectations. First, Pennsylvania’s 18th District was an open seat; the special election was called after the resignation of anti-abortion Republican Tim Murphy, a married father who was having an affair with a younger woman he impregnated and asked to have an abortion. King, on the other hand, is an eight-term incumbent, giving him inherent advantages from the start including name recognition (the Register poll showing a close race used a generic ballot question rather than naming candidates). Second, whereas Trump won Pennsylvania’s 18th by 20 points, he ran away with Iowa’s 4th by 27 points (PDF).

So far, King hasn’t appeared to be taking any of his potential Democratic rivals seriously — or even acknowledging them at all. While Scholten, Jacobsen, and John Paschen have all been actively campaigning on social media, for instance, King’s recently been spending his time on Twitter endorsing anti-Islam protests in Europe, calling for the arrest of Oakland, California, Mayor Libby Schaaf for “protect[ing] criminal aliens,” and arguing that “Americans need to have a lot of babies and raise them right” in order to restore western civilization. On Facebook, a King campaign staffer has been preoccupied for the past month with posting memes that mock gun control advocates and the survivors of last month’s high school massacre in Parkland, Florida.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.