Steve King is fighting for his political life in 10th-term bid

Race to watch

The controversial Iowa congressman is facing a formidable opponent in State Senator Randy Feenstra

In 2018, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) narrowly defeated his Democratic rival, J.D. Scholten, by roughly 10,000 votes. Two years later, bruised by a series of controversies and repudiated by his party’s leadership, King is limping towards his ninth re-election bid. Four candidates are challenging the embattled congressman in Tuesday’s GOP primary to represent Iowa’s 4th congressional district — and one, State Senator Randy Feenstra, may be within striking range of ending King’s tenure in Washington.

King has not run a single television ad over the course of his latest campaign, and entered the final phase of the primary with a little over $30,000 cash on hand. He has been outraised 2-1 by Feenstra, according to the most recent FEC filings. Two recent polls have shown mixed results: A poll conducted by The Iowa Standard shows King with a 13-point lead over Feenstra, while a poll sponsored by the American Future Fund organization showed Feenstra with a two-point lead. Others in the race include businessmen Bret Richards and Steve Reeder and Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor.

Feenstra, 51, has represented Iowa’s 2nd district in the State Senate since 2009, where he serves as assistant majority leader in the GOP-controlled legislature. Previously, he worked in local government for nearly a decade. Feenstra graduated from Dort College and got his master’s degree at Iowa State University. In the private sector, he was head of the sales department at Foreign Candy Company, a large candy manufacturer best known for its Black Forest-flavored gummy bears. 

King has a history of making bigoted comments against a variety of minority groups, and has faced criticism for his association with far-right political parties in Europe. In 2006, the nine-term congressman called the deaths of Americans at the hands of undocumented immigrants “a slow-motion Holocaust.” Last year, House Republican leaders voted to remove King from the Judiciary and Agriculture Committees following comments that appeared to defend white nationalists and white supremacists. Earlier this month, King claimed he had reached an agreement with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to return to his committee slots. The statement was immediately denied by the GOP leader.

King’s original journey to Washington was not a smooth one. In 2002, he ran for the open seat in the 5th congressional district after Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), who had previously represented the district, ran in the newly redrawn 4th district. King received 30% of the vote in a four-way Republican primary, sending the race to a convention, where he narrowly edged out State House Speaker Brent Siegrist. King went on to win the general election with 62% of the vote. In 2013, his district was combined with the 4th. 

But King may still come out on top next Tuesday. “Four people in the race always helps the incumbent,” Rick Bertrand, who challenged King in the 2016 primary, told The New York Times. During a TV debate on Tuesday, King was asked by his main opponent if he would commit to supporting the GOP nominee in the district in November. “I am going to be the nominee, and that’s my answer,” he replied.  

Iowa State Senator Randy Feenstra (Feenstra for Congress)

Feenstra launched his campaign in January 2019 after King was stripped of his committee assignments. He immediately received the backing of former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. In a recent interview with Jewish Insider, Feenstra maintained that King being deprived of his committee responsibilities, in particular the agriculture committee, is a good enough reason for him to be replaced. “We have a big agricultural area in our 4th district, and we have lost the seat at the table,” he noted. 

The case against King, Feenstra said, is simple: As an ineffective lawmaker sidelined by his colleagues, the congressman would not be able to advocate for quality-of-life issues that matter to constituents. A primary victory for King “puts the seat at risk, and we don’t need anybody else to help [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, that’s for sure,” Feenstra stressed. The winner of the primary will face Scholten in the fall. 

Iowa conservative Christian leader Bob Vander Plaat, who served with King as co-chair of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) 2016 presidential campaign, is backing Feenstra, as is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which aired more than $200,000 in advertising on broadcast and cable television in the Des Moines and Ames media market, according to Advertising Analytics.

The Republican Jewish Coalition also offered its support to Feenstra. Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), a member of the Steering Committee and former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, didn’t endorse any candidate, but told JTA that the RJC deserves praise for taking the rare step of supporting a challenger to an incumbent. 

“Steve King’s comments put him clearly outside of the mainstream of the Republican Party and they certainly don’t reflect or represent what we feel to be the values of the Republican Jewish Coalition,” RJC executive director Matt Brooks told JI. “And given that we think we have a strong candidate who can win in Randy Feenstra, we felt it important to take a stand and to make a clear statement that we will do everything in our power to defeat King in the primary and to elect somebody who is better representative of our values.” 

Feenstra has never been to Israel, but says that as a deeply religious person, he’s committed to supporting the Jewish state. “I’ve read the Old Testament many, many times,” he told JI, noting that “actually, right now” he’s reading the book of Exodus. “It’s just very intriguing to me. I just love what Israel stands for. Israel is so important for us as a nation to have as a great ally in the Middle East, and we have to be their protectors,” he added.

As a supporter of the president, Feenstra praised Trump for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He also backs the president’s Mideast peace plan, but stated, “I don’t believe Israel has to give up ground. We have to create a demarcation line and say, ‘This is Israel’s land and let’s be done with it.’” Feenstra took pride in being part of the effort to pass anti-BDS legislation in Iowa in 2016 that prevents state pension funds from directly investing in companies that boycott Israel. 

In Congress, King has been a hawkish supporter of Israel. In 2017, he introduced a resolution “rejecting” the two-state solution. During a debate on an AIPAC-backed bipartisan House resolution (H. R 11) that rebuked the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution condemning Israel, King said, “I would like to have a debate on the one-state solution versus the two-state solution because I believe that the two-state solution has run its course and we need to pack up our tools and ship those off to the side and start all over again with a new look.” 

RJC’s Brooks pushed back against criticism that his organization has abandoned a strong supporter of Israel. “Because somebody stands with us on Israel, which we appreciate, that does not give them a pass to support white nationalism and embrace white nationalist candidates,” Brooks said. “Our endorsement and our support transcends that — Randy Feenstra is going to be a great friend and outspoken supporter of Israel.” 

Brooks noted that the action taken against King by the House Republican Caucus “stands in stark contrast to the lack of action by any of the leaders on the Democratic side with regard to the blatant antisemitism of [Rep.] Ilhan Omar and the offensive and troubling comments by Omar and [Rep.] Rashida Tlaib.” He added, “Republicans have shown that there are clear red lines and act when people within our party cross those lines.”

If successful in his mission to oust the controversial incumbent, Feenstra wants the national newspapers to move on from its focus on his district. “I’m going to Washington to be an effective conservative leader,” he said. “Voters want an effective leader who can stand up and push the conservative agenda of reducing taxes, protecting lives and protecting our constitutional freedoms. That’s the bottom line.”

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