As Primary Nears, Steve King Re-Engages His Victim Mentality

With a new internal poll suggesting state Senator Randy Feenstra could be within striking range, the congressman is accusing his rivals of opportunism and touting an "agreement" with Kevin McCarthy about his committee assignments — a claim the minority leader says is false

Screenshot from Spencer Daily Reporter/YouTube

Find all of the Informer‘s comprehensive coverage of Congressman Steve King and his history of promoting white nationalist views right here.

“No legitimate person believes The New York Times,” Steve King ranted during a May 11 primary debate hosted by the Spencer Daily Reporter at a socially distanced Clay County Fair & Events Center, directing his ire at his four Republican challengers who failed to “defend” him against the newspaper’s purported smears. “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.”

It was a sob story the 4th District congressman has been telling since January 2019, after asking reporter Trip Gabriel, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” House Republicans booted King from his seats on the agriculture, judiciary, and small business committees less than a week later amid suggestions from prominent conservatives, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that he step down.

King has undeniably been wounded, although it remains to be seen, with the primary just over two weeks away, if the wounds are piercing. An internal poll released on the day of the debate by the campaign of his leading rival, state Senator Randy Feenstra, showed King ahead by a slim 39-to-36 percent margin, within the poll’s 5.2 percent margin of error. Feenstra’s fundraising has dwarfed the congressman’s throughout the primary, and the challenger has gained the support of several prominent donors who backed King in past elections.

“The truth shall set you free.”

At the Spencer debate, King didn’t liken his imagined persecution to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as he did at a town hall meeting in Cherokee last year, two days after Easter. Instead, he drew a comparison with Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser who in December 2017 pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI when the bureau was investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Four days before the debate, Attorney General William Barr dropped the Justice Department’s case against Flynn, a controversial move criticized in an open letter signed by nearly 2,000 former federal officials as “extraordinarily rare, if not unprecedented” and the latest example of Barr “doing the President’s personal bidding rather than acting in the public interest.”

Or perhaps King did make the divine comparison again, just more obliquely. “The truth shall set you free,” he said, asserting that Flynn had been vindicated as he echoed a passage from the Book of John, in which Christ tells his followers they will know the truth if they abide in his word. “Michael Flynn went through a terrible, terrible ordeal for three years or more. He lost his home, six million dollars. But, you know, the truth came out. The truth came out on me, too, it just hasn’t been exonerated yet. My time will come around.”

King expanded on this in his closing remarks, after comparing his self-inflicted plight to the barrage of criticism Trump has faced in office and presenting himself, so to speak, as a loyal disciple of the president’s by claiming that he, too, has been “under pressure because I have taken the swamp on.”

If his rivals were solely challenging him in the GOP primary because he was unjustly stripped of his committee assignments, King apparently reasoned, then the exoneration he foretold would expose their rank opportunism. (To believe this requires a selective memory of the recent past — the congressman’s first serious primary challenger, then-state Senator Rick Bertrand, ran against him in 2016, raising similar objections to his penchant for creating unnecessary distractions for the conservative movement.)

But, as he did last year in Cherokee, King overplayed his hand. He claimed that he’d “reached an agreement” with Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, who planned to “advocate to the steering committee to put all of my committees back with all of my seniority.” McCarthy, he went on, gave him his word that when Congress reconvenes, “that will be my time for exoneration.”

The reason for this, according to King’s version of events, was straightforward. No one ever challenged his “fact-check document,” a disjointed memo released by his congressional staffers two months after the Times supposedly misquoted him, which King said at the debate disproved all of the racism allegations against him. The memo included his interpretation of how he should have been quoted as he discussed “the left’s use of weaponized language” against conservatives — essentially, that he was only objecting to the notion that the term “Western Civilization” was offensive.

As supporting evidence, the memo described searches conducted using a LexisNexis database of newspaper archives suggesting that only once before had King used the term “white nationalist,” whereas he’d been quoted saying “Western Civilization” 276 times. (It did not mention that the latter is commonly used as coded language for the former, nor did it acknowledge King’s longstanding associations with white nationalists.) The memo then contradicted its own explanation of the distinction lacking in the Times quote. Citing LexisNexis results showing “an explosive increase” since 2015 in the media’s use of terms like “white supremacist” and “white nationalist,” the memo referenced a statement made by King during an interview with WHO-TV political reporter Dave Price three months before the Times article was published. “It is a derogatory term today,” King told Price, referring to white nationalism. “I wouldn’t have thought so maybe a year or two or three ago. Today they use it as a derogatory term, and it implies that you are a racist.” (The term originated at least seven decades ago and has been used ever since by white supremacists as a euphemism.)

Little of what King said in his closing remarks at the debate appears to be true. When McCarthy made the decision to strip the congressman of his committee assignments, he told the Times, “This is not the first time we’ve heard these comments,” contradicting the claim that his choice was the result of a single misquote. At a press conference Friday, McCarthy added, “Congressman King’s comments cannot be exonerated and I never said that.” Earlier last week, Ohio Republican Steve Stivers tweeted: “Rep. Steve King claims he will get his committees back next year. As long as I am a member of the Republican Steering Committee, I will not allow hate & bigotry to influence the legislation passed by Congress. He will not be serving on any committee.”

Although King clearly still feels aggrieved by his treatment in the press and from members of his own party, he did not appear to be particularly concerned about the primary election until recently. Last October, his campaign touted an internal poll of its own showing the congressman with a wide lead. King continues to sound convinced that most of his constituents believe his ultimately trivial contention that he was misquoted by The New York Times. (Three of his primary challengers even responded to his opening attack at the debate by saying they didn’t believe the Times, either.)

The victim mentality on display now from King is reminiscent of his behavior in the weeks leading up to the 2018 general election against Democratic newcomer J.D. Scholten. With polls showing an usually close race for the typically safe Republican seat, the congressman dismissed his challenger as a name-caller with no clear policy positions, implying that his campaign was just a convenient way for liberal coastal elites to smear a truth-teller from rural America.

Less than two weeks before the vote, an explosive report from The Washington Post revealed that King had met with supporters of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, an organization founded by former Nazis, on the tail-end of a tour of historical sites in Poland funded by a Holocaust memorial group. At a forum hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership on the Thursday before the election, King held up a copy of the article and denounced it as false. He also falsely claimed that the Freedom Party no longer had any ties to neo-Nazis and angrily demanded that an activist be removed from the room after he confronted King about the similarities among his rhetoric and the manifesto of an anti-Semitic gunman who murdered 11 people at a Pittsburg synagogue the previous month.

The confrontation made national news, amplifying King’s defensive outburst. That same day, a new poll showed Scholten within a single point. The congressman dismissed this, too, with an internal poll from his campaign suggesting he was up by 18 points. The race came down to a 3.4-point margin, an unheard of result for Scholten’s party, whose previous candidate was blown out by 22. Scholten is now awaiting his second shot at unseating King, and there’s a real sense among his supporters that he may just do that later this year — that is, if the congressman is able to fend off Randy Feenstra June 2, as he was with Scholten in 2018. Should Feenstra win the primary, he’ll likely be the overwhelming favorite in the general.

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.