DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican Steve King likes to note that President Donald Trump has referred to him as “the world’s most conservative human being,” but the congressman from deep-red western Iowa known for his caustic comments about race and immigration is bracing for what could be his toughest campaign since taking office 16 years ago.
The challenge isn't from a Democrat but from a deeply conservative state legislator. Randy Feenstra announced this week he'd seek the Republican nomination in the sprawling and largely rural 4th District, saying voters needed an effective leader rather than "more sideshows and distractions."
"Today, Iowa's 4th District doesn't have a voice in Washington, because our current representative's caustic nature has left us without a seat at the table," Feenstra said Wednesday in announcing his campaign.
King responded that Feenstra's challenge represented "misguided political opportunism, fueled by establishment puppeteers," but he could have trouble with an opponent who has been elected three times in a state Senate district whose voters comprises roughly 20 percent of the congressional district.
Feenstra also has a solid conservative record of opposing abortion rights, supporting the expansion of gun rights, backing voter identification legislation and pushing a large tax cut through the 2018 Iowa Legislature.
And, of course, there's King's long history of statements and social media tweets that demean immigrants, seemingly support white supremacists and mock minorities. That list of comments grew longer Thursday as King was quoted in a New York Times story as saying, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?"
In the same story, King was described as sitting among Republicans in the House chamber and saying, as he looked toward the new Democratic majority, "You could look over there and think the Democratic Party is no country for white men."
Later Thursday, King released a statement saying he doesn't support white nationalism or white supremacy. "I reject those labels and the evil ideology that they define," King said.
Instead, King called himself an "advocate for western Civilization's values."
Craig Robinson, an Iowa Republican activist and editor of an online GOP forum, said he once was a strong supporter of King and embraced his willingness to speak his mind. But over the years, Robinson said he has lost patience with King.
"It's like you had a young child and he'd act out and you thought it was cute," Robinson said. "This child has grown up and is still acting out and it's not cute anymore."
Trump stood with King at an Iowa campaign rally and called him "maybe the world's most conservative human being." But Robinson said voters want something more tangible than cultural comments. That's especially true given the population declines and sluggish economy in a rural district that stretches across roughly one-third of the state.
"People in his district want to know what can he do to create jobs and help grow the economy," Robinson said. "We never hear about those kinds of things."
King's greatest challenge could be whether he can raise the money needed to beat back a well-funded challenger. For years, King has devoted little time to campaign fundraising and in the weeks before last fall's election, companies including Land O' Lakes and Intel Corp. pulled their financial support for the congressman after he made statements about race and immigration.
Following Feenstra's announcement that he'd run against King, Iowa's Republican governor and two U.S. senators said they would remain neutral in the race. All had previously supported King, who was a co-chairman of Gov. Kim Reynolds' last successful campaign.
Still, beating King won't be easy for anyone.
Democrat J.D. Scholten, who lost in the 2018 general election to King by only 3 percentage points, said the key to running against King was to offer a vision for how to help the citizens of western Iowa. In his campaign, Scholten said he avoided mentioning King at all.
"Talking about him didn't do me any favors," he said.
Tim Allen, the Republican chairman in Sioux County who has long supported King, said he thinks Republicans in his county are separated into thirds — one-third supports King, one-third welcomes a GOP opponent and one-third is undecided.
“It’s not an easy thing for someone like me to make a decision,” Allen said. “But any time you have two good stand-up candidates, that’s a good thing. It’s better to have good options than to have no options or bad options.”