DES MOINES, Iowa – The longer Steve King served in Congress, building up a repertoire of racist rhetoric and nativist sentiments, the more he unwittingly became a unifying force in American politics.
Republicans and Democrats alike were glad to see him go Tuesday, defeated in a GOP primary after nine terms in Congress representing Iowa and after being stripped of his committee assignments.
“Steve King does not represent the Republican Party, and it’s time for him to leave Congress,” said Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition, one of several groups that backed King’s winning rival Randy Feenstra after years of frustration with King.
King, who for years kept a Confederate flag on his desk, lost his seat amid a reckoning moment for the United States as it confronts its long history of mistreatment of African Americans and a backlash against the nationalistic policies of President Donald Trump. The congressman's defeat comes five months before Americans decide whether to reelect Trump, who in 2014 described King as “a smart person with really the right views on almost everything.”
King, a former state senator known for championing English as Iowa's official language, was first elected to Congress in 2002. He has long been a crusader for such hard-line positions as ending automatic citizenship for children of immigrants born in the United States or for children brought with their parents illegally into the country.
In 2006, he suggested electrifying a U.S.-Mexican border fence atop his proposed wall, noting “we do that with livestock all the time.” In 2013, opposing President Barack Obama's decision allowing children entering the U.S. illegally with parents to stay, King said, “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
In 2008, King said during a radio program that if Obama were elected, “radical Islamists, Al-Qaida, the Islamists and their supporters will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11."
King didn't explicitly say Obama was friendly to Islamic extremists, but the insinuation was unavoidable. “I don’t want to disparage anyone because of their race, their ethnicity, their name, whatever the religion of their father might have been," King explained, but asked people “think about the optics of Barack Obama potentially getting elected president.”
Some GOP leaders said there's a place for extreme views, as long as they have a goal for the common good.
“It’s one thing to have a very strident view on immigration. It’s another to use the bully pulpit of Congress for inflammatory statements, which broke the camel’s back,” said former New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, a former chairman of the GOP’s congressional campaign arm.
And yet King's reelection — year after year — had been nearly assured in the district, rooted in the socially conservative Christian Reform Church where registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats by 60,000.
As Trump rose, King became emboldened, stepping up his long-held argument that Western Christian society had been the strongest contributor to human civilization, carefully casting the argument in terms of culture, not race.
“I'd ask you to go through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people you're talking about," he said in 2016. “Where did any other sub-group contribute to civilization?"
It was a New York Times story in January 2019 that marked the beginning of the end. King was stripped of his committee assignments after being quoted in the story asking, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
King has said the comments were taken out of context and has gone on to say, despite the litany of similar rhetoric over the years, that he's never been accused by individuals of discriminating against them, sticking with his portrayal as the victim.
“This is a biased attack against me," King said in an Associated Press interview last month. “Of all of the people who have been put in the stocks by the social media of the last few years, people like Brett Kavanaugh, at least they’ve got accusers."
But the rare punishment of stripping King of his committee assignments — judiciary, amid the ramp-up to Trump's impeachment, and, more practically in King's farm-heavy district, agriculture — came amid Republicans public distancing from the alt-right groups that had reemerged during efforts to remove Confederate statues from public places.
Still, Feenstra didn't defeat King by calling him a racist, a tack advisers said would have backfired by sending King supporters into a defensive crouch. Instead, he hammered away at King's lack of voice, for instance, on agriculture policy in a district with farm, food and machinery output smaller in raw dollars only than Nebraska's massive 3rd District.
“This is a progression, not an instance,” said Iowa Republican strategist Jon Stineman. “But him being stripped of his committees provided the opening here, the window."
And while GOP establishment groups nationally and supporters in Iowa shrugged off King's comments, only to be shaken by his loss of clout in key policy areas, some longtime King supporters such as state Sen. Annette Sweeney had had enough of King's comments.
“Some of them might have been that he was trying to be funny and cute, but it wasn't. In fact, some comments were repulsive,” said Sweeney, who backed Feenstra. “I know we Iowans have a better, broader spectrum of thoughts than some discussed by Congressman King."