Congressman Steve King has always been a reliable conservative, but he has also courted controversy, displaying a Confederate flag on his desk in Washington and making incendiary statements that riled liberal critics.
DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — If the number of candidates competing in a primary contest is a sign of trouble for an incumbent politician, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst and Congressman Steve King should be looking nervously over their shoulders.
Ernst, a Republican, is seeking a second term after winning Iowa’s Senate seat long held by Democrat Tom Harkin six years ago. The military veteran and former state senator known for her Harley-Davidson caravan fundraisers and comparison of castrating pigs to cutting wasteful spending might have seemed invincible just a few months ago.
But many voters seem to be having second thoughts, according to a March poll by the Des Moines Register and Mediacom that showed her approval rating slipping 10 points, to 47%. And four Democratic candidates are competing in Iowa’s June 2 primary for the opportunity to run against her in November.
Nationally, the Democratic Party hopes to capitalize on Ernst’s perceived vulnerability to recapture the U.S. Senate in November.
In northwest Iowa’s sprawling 4th Congressional District, which is dominated by Republicans, nine-term Congressman Steve King faces the toughest fight of his political career with four Republicans seeking to knock him out of the race next week. King’s base has been unwavering historically. But this year is different after his racially charged comments attacking immigrants and supporting white supremacists caught up with him in the House, where leaders stripped him of all committee assignments.
Besides Ernst and King, personnel changes are possible elsewhere in Iowa’s congressional delegation.
Four Republicans are competing for the party’s nomination in the 2nd Congressional District for the seat vacated with the retirement of Democrat Dave Loebsack after seven terms. And four Republicans are competing to run against Democrats in the 1st and 3rd Districts, both of whom will be defending seats wrested away from Republicans in 2018.
Among the Democrats vying to take on Ernst, Theresa Greenfield has captured most of the attention and money. She has key Democratic endorsements from state legislators, a raft of labor organizations, Emily’s List and the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She had raised more than $7 million as of May 13, four times as much as her nearest primary competitor.
Greenfield’s support for labor, farmers and families reflects her biography: She grew up on a Minnesota farm and found herself a widow at age 24, with a toddler and second child on the way, when her husband was killed in a workplace accident. Today she works with her second husband in a marketing and communications company in Des Moines.
She faces a strong field of Democratic competitors, however.
Eddie Mauro, a Des Moines insurance company owner, is making his second bid for a seat in Congress, and he is the second-highest fundraiser in this primary with endorsements from a collection of minority leaders, including three African American state legislators.
Michael Franken, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, has been endorsed by the Des Moines Register and 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning Storm Lake Times. Franken spent more than 36 years in the U.S. Navy where his duties included commanding a squadron of ships and serving as the Navy’s chief of legislative affairs.
Des Moines lawyer Kimberly Graham has campaigned on family and economic-justice issues dear to the hearts of Bernie Sanders supporters, but she has not gained much traction in this campaign.
“Greenfield is clearly the establishment candidate, and the only one with significant money,” said Dennis Goldford, political science professor at Drake University. “Mauro is the only one going after her on TV in debates and ads, while Women Vote is going after Franken, and Graham seems not to have any money at all.”
The challenge is for any of these candidates to garner 35% of the primary vote to win the nomination outright and avoid a runoff.
The most contentious battle for the House is in the 4th District, which King has represented for nine terms. King has always been a reliable conservative, but he has increasingly tacked farther right, displaying a Confederate flag on his desk in Washington and making incendiary statements that riled liberal critics. One example: When referring to young Latin American immigrants, he said, “For everyone 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.”
House leaders’ tolerance for King’s outrageous comments reached a limit last year when he was stripped of all committee assignments following a New York Times interview in which he seemed to defend white supremacists.
King came within 3 percentage points of losing his seat in 2018 to Democratic opponent J.D. Scholten, who is running again in November. Key political leaders in Iowa – including evangelical Christians and conservative business groups – have abandoned him in this election. King, who has raised only $331,000, had just $32,000 in the bank on May 13.
And he faces four Republican primary opponents.
Among them is State Senator Randy Feenstra, a senator since 2009 where he has been a leader on tax and fiscal issues. Feenstra has raised close to $1 million and is widely endorsed among Iowa’s Republican establishment. While Feenstra would likely vote no different than King on gun control, immigration, and tax cuts, his supporters say he would be a more effective legislator in Congress.
Goldford, the Drake professor, said Feenstra is the “establishment-Republican candidate,” but he added, “I don’t know that he differs a millimeter in policy terms from King, which would make him King without the history and tendency toward inflammatory comments. His selling point is that he’d get back onto committees important to 4th District voters; his message is that King can’t speak for the 4th District if no one is willing listen to him anymore.”
Still, Goldford wouldn’t count him out in a five-way primary contest where the nominee must win 35% of the vote. Indeed, King won his first Republican nomination at a district convention in 2002.
“It would be a moment of supreme irony if he led but didn’t get to 35%, and then lost the nomination in convention,” Goldford said.
Another contentious primary is in the 2nd District in southeast Iowa, where four candidates entered the Republican primary following the announced retirement of Loebsack. Democrat Rita Hart, a former state senator who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2018, is unopposed in Tuesday’s primary.
Handicappers have put their money on state Senator Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa, an ophthalmologist, former Iowa Department of Public Health director and 24-year Army veteran. Miller-Meeks is the top fundraiser with $588,000 as of May 13, and she has endorsements from Senator Ernst and two dozen state legislators.
In the 3rd District in southwest Iowa, which includes Des Moines, Democratic incumbent Cindy Axne is defending her seat she won in 2018 by defeating two-term Congressman David Young, a Republican. Young, former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, is running to reclaim the seat. He is opposed in the GOP primary by Army veteran Bill Schafer.
And in the 1st District in northeast Iowa, Democratic incumbent Abby Finkenauer is also defending her seat, which she won two years ago by defeating incumbent Republican Rod Blum. In November, she will face either Ashley Hinson, a former TV reporter and member of the Iowa House of Representatives, or Thomas Hansen, the owner of a refrigeration business and cattle rancher.