8 Top Moments of the King-Bertrand Debate

Gage Skidmore/Flickr, Iowa Legislature

Iowa Congressman Steve King and his GOP primary challenger, Sioux City state Sen. Rick Bertrand, squared off in a debate Friday evening at Morningside College, ahead of next Tuesday’s election. (The winner will face, and most likely easily defeat, Democratic challenger Kim Weaver.) There weren’t many surprises — or tough questions from the moderators — during the debate, but here are eight moments that stood out.

King boasts of Obamacare repeal bills, taking down ACORN

A key theme of Bertrand’s campaign is that many Iowa Republicans are fed up with King’s headline-grabbing grandstanding and would prefer a less embarrassing representative more focused on and effective at getting things done for the state of Iowa. Debate moderators opened the debate with several questions (one might say an excessive number of questions) along those lines. Bertrand echoed his previous arguments and said that King has lost touch with his constituents because he doesn’t face any threat in general elections from Iowa’s conservative 4th District. In contrast, Bertrand repeated throughout the night, he would carefully consider issues as he did when he arrived in the Statehouse in 2011.

King countered that Bertrand’s backers were just pissed off at the congressman. “His supporters, his benefactors,” King said of Bertrand, “are angry because I endorsed a candidate for president and he won [the Iowa caucuses]. They didn’t want me to be that effective, and they spent millions trying to stop that.” (Prominent Bertrand supporters, including Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter and political operative Nick Ryan, ditched King after he backed Ted Cruz, an opponent of the Renewable Fuel Standard that aids Iowa’s ethanol industry.)

Then King boasted about bills he sponsored to repeal Obamacare that “passed the House multiple times” — among bills that have passed the House over 50 times, all functionally useless efforts because on the rare occasion they might land on the president’s desk, he’s proved he’ll just take out his veto pen. King also boasted about his role in helping defund the community organizing group ACORN over a James O’Keefe-orchestrated smear campaign. “I’ve got one in my pocket,” King said of his own acorn, which he’s kept as a “scalp” since ACORN’s demise.

King supports Bertrand’s defamation lawsuit against a previous political opponent

Later, the candidates discussed how much they liked each other. Bertrand said he didn’t personally find King unlikable. King argued that “likability,” like the word “fair,” was a very “ambiguous” term. “I’m glad he says he likes me,” King said of Bertrand. “I like him a little less than I did before. I liked him before though, so we’re okay.”

One thing in particular King said he liked about his opponent was the defamation lawsuit he filed over an Iowa Democratic Party ad that ran in 2010 in support of his state Senate opponent, Rick Mullin. After Bertrand was initially awarded damages, a district court verdict was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds. “I’m glad he did that,” King said. “He took a stand on how you should treat people and what should be decent and what should be honest.” The statement prompted a moderator to exclaim, “My gosh, I think we found some common ground!”

Both candidates make it clear they’re opposed to abortion

Responding to a question about partial-birth abortions when the life of the mother is at risk, Bertrand replied, “You know what? It’s so, so rare, and two wrongs don’t make a right.” Before that, King claimed that partial-birth abortions are never necessary to save the life of a mother — which isn’t really true.

King fondly recalls the Mexican wall prop he showed off on the House floor

Bertrand struck a slightly softer note than King on immigration, saying it was time to do the “Christian thing” by abandoning rhetoric and helping undocumented immigrants with certain things like workforce visas, but not offering them a path to citizenship. King, a hardline immigration reform foe who in the past has compared undocumented immigrants to dogs and visited the Great Wall of China for inspiration on how the U.S. could build a border wall, reminisced about the time he brought a border wall prop to the House floor. “I’ve demonstrated how we build a wall on the southern border,” he said, “and that’s been kind of YouTube viral”:

Bertrand trusts Donald Trump on terrorism

“I think right now what we’re going to see is, we’re going to have a new president come in, a new Republican president, and I think he’s going to take on this issue,” Bertrand said, in response to a question about whether the U.S. walks a proper line between the war on terror and civil liberties. “Because we’ve got our heads in the sand … while watching Christians being butchered over in the sand. It’s a real-time holocaust.” (Bertrand endorsed Trump last month; Steve King’s been more hesitant.)

Debate moderator dances around use of the word “torture” as King and Bertrand take hardline stances on national security

KSCJ radio’s Charlie Stone, one of the debate’s three moderators, danced around the word “torture” in questions he asked the candidates while referring to Guantanamo Bay and black sites used to torture suspects during the U.S. war on terror, resorting instead to euphemisms like “enhanced techniques,” “exaggerated efforts,” “things … we might not necessarily approve of or enjoy,” and “black ops, possibly.” (Black ops, definitely.)

In response to a question Stone asked about whether the candidates would say, “I’m okay with this, let’s just git ‘er done,” Bertrand said, “I think we’re in an era of non-PC” that would continue “with a new president coming in.” “I think that we’re tired of just thinking we’re going to be able to fight wars of containment with soft gloves,” Bertrand went on. “It’s time to take the gloves off; it’s time to reassert ourselves when it comes to national security.”

It wasn’t until Stone asked King a similarly wishy-washy question — “Waterboarding on down, what say you? Is it [sic] activities we are encouraging and we need to do, or are we doing it wrong?” — that King himself introduced the word “torture” to the debate. King, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said, “We’ve gone through some intense debates on what is torture and what is not,” framing the disagreement over the use of waterboarding as simply partisan (internationally, waterboarding is widely defined as a form of torture). King then added that he supports keeping Gitmo open.

King takes heat for never having chaired the House Ag Committee

A moderator asked King why he’d never managed to become chair of the House Committee on Agriculture despite the national prominence of his congressional district in the ag industry. “When [the chair position] did come up, John Boehner was the speaker of the House, and he and I have had our disagreements, and I don’t think that’s a public secret,” King replied. “He’s no longer the speaker of the House, so if that opportunity arises again, my chances of being the chairman of the ag committee get significantly greater.”

Bertrand piled on: “People say this to me in the cattleyards, they say this to me at the ethanol plants, why is a junior member from Texas [chairing] that committee?” During the ag discussion, King and Bertrand also bickered over the amount of influence King had over passing recent farm bills, in which King mentioned he’d fought to cut food stamp benefits. Bertrand said people have told him that one failed amendment protecting Iowa farmers would probably have survived had the name of former 4th District Rep. Tom Latham, rather than the more toxic King, been on the amendment. (“The congressman’s out running his own agenda, he’s out campaigning for Ted Cruz,” Bertrand later said, questioning King’s commitment to meeting with his constituents. “Some voters still think that Tom Latham’s their representative.”)

Bertrand jokes about the controversial tweet King sent out before the Iowa caucuses

During his closing remarks, Bertrand referenced a controversial tweet King — then the Cruz campaign’s national co-chair — sent out hours before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses that appeared to falsely suggest Ben Carson had dropped out of the presidential race. Trump later claimed the Cruz campaign’s misleading suggestions about Carson’s status ended up costing him the state. “I’ve learned from the Ben Carson people,” Bertrand said. “If anyone on Tuesday gets a text or a tweet from Congressman King that says that I’m dropping out, please disregard it. Please vote.” King just chuckled in response.

Earlier, Bertrand was asked about how his endorsement of then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry — like Cruz, an RFS foe — for president in 2012 was any different from King’s support this cycle for Cruz. Bertrand said that Perry had simply asked to host an event at his business in Sioux City to discuss the military, and Bertrand obliged: “He left, I shook his hand, I never saw him again.”

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.