In Primary That All But Ignored His Racist Views, Steve King Is Finally Defeated

Randy Feenstra, who ran as a pro-Trump conservative with softer rhetoric, now faces Democrat J.D. Scholten, who quipped, "I won a primary" by setting the stage for the congressman's downfall in 2018

Steve King/Facebook

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

As Tuesday’s 4th District Republican primary drew closer, Congressman Steve King appeared increasingly desperate to convince his constituents that he was the victim of a carefully orchestrated smear campaign by the media and DC swamp. He’d lost his House committee assignments, he claimed, because he was misquoted in The New York Times to seemingly defend white nationalism, allowing pseudo-conservative state Senator Randy Feenstra to launch an opportunistic campaign to oust him. Kevin McCarthy had assured him that his committee seats would be reinstated, King repeatedly insisted at primary forums as he read from a transcript of a recent phone conversation with the House minority leader — since the Times hit piece, he explained, he carried “a recording device … at all times” that he turned on “when I need to be doing the recording of people.” Despite what the transcript was supposed to prove, McCarthy denied ever making such an assurance.

The problem dogged King throughout his entire campaign for a tenth term in Congress. After narrowly winning re-election in 2018, he kicked off a carefully stage-managed town-hall tour of his district’s 39 counties in Primghar with a similar defiant message of victimhood. Although the tour was presumably designed at least in part as a damage-control effort, the congressman couldn’t keep his foot out of his mouth. For no apparent reason, he disparaged hurricane victims in majority-black New Orleans by claiming they didn’t “take care of each other” like flood victims in Iowa did, and he likened his ordeal in the House to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Even so, King’s long-overdue ouster after nine terms was far from certain going into primary day. One rather dubious poll, commissioned by the pro-King news website The Iowa Standard and conducted by a firm identified only as “one of the few pollsters in America that predicted Trump’s victory in 2016,” showed the congressman up by 14 points a week beforehand. But even the more credible polling suggested the race was neck and neck, with Feenstra closing the gap thanks largely to his massive fundraising advantage and King’s virtually nonexistent campaign advertising. Still, King had long treated campaigning with a dismissive arrogance, and many observers figured the incumbent would eke out a victory.

Instead, it became clear shortly after polls closed at 9 pm that Feenstra was running away with the race, which he ended up winning by a dominating 10-point margin. His triumph has deprived J.D. Scholten of a highly anticipated general election rematch with King. In 2018, the political newcomer finished a stunningly close 3.4 points behind the congressman, who had easily dispatched all of his previous Democratic rivals by double-digit margins as wide as ten times that of Scholten’s. Feenstra is now the overwhelming favorite to win in the deep-red district, where active Republican voters outnumber Democrats by more than 70,000.

Despite this, Scholten was in good spirits during a phone conversation with the Informer after the race was called for Feenstra. “I’m good, I’m good,” he joked. “I won a primary.” His narrow loss in 2018 came after months of relentless travel across the district in an RV named Sioux City Sue that often doubled as his home on the campaign trail. He was aided by King’s series of self-inflicted wounds that culminated in a report from The Washington Post about the congressman’s recent excursion to Austria, where he promoted a white supremacist conspiracy theory in an interview with a publication tied to a far-right political party founded by former Nazis, at the end of a tour of historical sites in Poland funded by a Holocaust memorial foundation.

“This is, I feel, a victory for our campaign from 2018,” Scholten said of King’s defeat. “He wouldn’t have had a primary challenge this hard if it wasn’t for us proving he’s vulnerable. So, in a lot of ways, this is a huge part of our success.” But for many of his supporters, it was a bittersweet victory. “Iowa Democrats are mourning the defeat of @SteveKingIA more than any Republican as presence of King in general election gave @JDScholten even-odds chance and ramped up energy for other Democrats in Iowa,” tweeted longtime Iowa newspaperman Douglas Burns, who recently published a collection of two decades’ worth of columns about the congressman titled King Kong Krazy.

Although Iowa Republicans turned a blind eye toward King’s racist rhetoric and white nationalist ties for many years, they were also quick to take credit for Feenstra’s victory Tuesday. David Kochel, a longtime Republican campaign strategist from the state, referenced a comment Governor Kim Reynolds made a week after the congressman defeated Scholten, when she said, “Steve King needs to make a decision if he wants to represent the people and the values of the 4th District, or do something else.” Kochel said, “This was a strong comment and it portended what happened tonight.”

But throughout her 2018 campaign for governor, Reynolds rejected calls to remove King as one of her honorary co-chairs, repeatedly downplaying the controversies he created for himself. In December 2017, after he tweeted that “assimilation, not diversity, is our American strength,” the governor said she “completely disagree[d] with what he said” but added that her campaign had many co-chairs and she was “not going to agree with everything they have to say.” She ultimately dismissed the comment as part of “the Twitter war.” At a GOP rally shortly before the election, Reynolds again said she disagreed with “the comments that he’s made,” with the caveat that she couldn’t “be held responsible” for them.

If anything truly “portended what happened” Tuesday, it was the decision by House leadership to strip King of his assignments on the agriculture, judiciary, and small business committees after reporter Trip Gabriel quoted him in The New York Times defending the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” in January 2019. After the primary was called, Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, congratulated Feenstra, saying, “Steve King’s white supremacist rhetoric is totally inconsistent with the Republican Party, and I’m glad Iowa Republicans rejected him at the ballot box.”

But it was the loss of his committee assignments, not his overt racism, that ultimately ended King’s career in Congress. As the Informer extensively documented, his rhetoric and associations with white supremacists were evident for many years before his comment in the Times. Feenstra, who has similarly hardline views on issues like abortion and immigration, referred vaguely to King’s “caustic nature.” But he campaigned as a Trump ally who would help build his border wall and represent the 4th District’s conservative values more effectively than an incumbent rendered impotent by the loss of his committee seats.

And King’s rhetoric was not “totally inconsistent with the Republican Party” in 2014, when Donald Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr., collectively gave $6,600 to the congressman’s campaign for a seventh term as he played a key role in sabotaging comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Trump took a break from suggesting President Obama was born in Kenya to visit Iowa that October, praising King as “special guy, a smart person, with really the right views on almost everything.” In the same Times article that led to his downfall, King recalled to Gabriel that after becoming president, Trump invited him to the Oval Office, where the congressman assured him, “I market-tested your immigration policy for 14 years, and that ought to be worth something.”

King countered Feenstra’s campaign message by calling him a RINO — Republican In Name Only — despite their largely indistinguishable policy positions. He attempted to portray himself as the more pro-Trump candidate by reminding voters that, in Council Bluffs shortly before the 2018 election, the president approvingly said of King, “He may be the world’s most conservative human being.” The strategy might have worked, had the congressman’s campaign aired even a single TV ad.

Before polls closed Tuesday, King made a final plea to voters in a rare on-message video posted to his campaign’s Facebook page, which is run by an unnamed staffer whose focus throughout the entire campaign was gleefully posting juvenile, liberal-trolling memes, as if King’s re-election was a foregone conclusion no matter the level of absurdity. (The page’s About section cautions, “Posts may not be suitable for those without a sense of humor.”) In the video, King reminded his constituents that he had “never let you down in all these years.” Seemingly unaware of the alliterative similarity to the organization formerly led by David Duke, who once raved that “sanity reigns supreme” in the 4th District thanks to King, the congressman stressed that he was a “full-spectrum constitutional Christian conservative.”

Just four hours later, the page posted a short concession video in which King described how he’d just called Feenstra to concede, warning him of “some powerful elements in the swamp that he’s going to have an awfully hard time pushing back against.” He blamed his defeat on “an effort to push out the strongest voice for full-spectrum constitutional Christian conservatism that exists in the United States Congress,” fretting that the second strongest voice may soon be next. In a moment of poetic justice for a defeated man who once complained that the killing of Trayvon Martin had been turned “into a race issue” and suggested that the fatal injuries sustained by Freddie Gray during a police “rough ride” were self-inflicted, King then decried “the spirit of America that’s being fractured by anarchists in the streets across this country” as protests rage over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis cop.

Speaking to the Informer Tuesday night, Democrat J.D. Scholten said he didn’t plan to change his campaign strategy now that he’ll be facing Feenstra instead of King in the general election. “So much of our campaign is talking about what we’re for, not just who we’re against or what we’re against,” he said. However, Scholten found some common ground with King over one of the congressman’s critiques. “You look at who supported Randy, and it’s establishment, corporations, and a lot of the outside PACs were very much from hedge funds — kind of the who’s who of the swamp,” he said, adding that he would continue to focus on ideas that prioritize residents over corporate interests, such as taking aim at corporate tax breaks he said are “sucking the wealth out of this district” and breaking up Big Ag. “What this district really needs is a vision of how we lift this district back up,” Scholten said, “and I feel I have that.”

Even if Scholten can’t find a way to pull off an upset against Feenstra in November, Iowa at long last will be free of the national embarrassment famously summed up on a T-shirt designed by the Des Moines clothing store Raygun that reads, “DEAR AMERICA, SORRY ABOUT STEVE KING. SINCERELY, AMERICA.” (“We currently have a massive sale for the Steve King designs,” a Raygun representative told the Informer. “I imagine we will be planning on retiring it at some point but will hopefully release some new designs in regards to him being voted out of Congress.”)

It remains to be seen what King, who is 71 years old, will do after his current term in the House expires in January. Asked for a prediction, Scholten laughed. “I don’t know,” he said. “He’s not one to be quiet and go away.”

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.