Al Drago / AP
Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019 | 2 a.m.
WASHINGTON — By the time a Republican challenged Rep. Steve King of Iowa in the 2016 party primary, King had already courted far-right foreign leaders, proposed electric wiring atop a border wall to treat unauthorized immigrants like straying livestock, and said young migrants had “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
But in that race King had the help of fellow Republicans like then-Gov. Terry Branstad and Sens. Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst. Each of those Iowa Republicans overlooked King’s history of racist remarks and divisive conduct — well before his recent comments about “white supremacy” — and backed King’s re-election in the state’s most heavily conservative district.
King won handily.
“They didn’t care too much about Steve King — it was about the primary voters Steve King represents,” said former state Sen. Rick Bertrand, the GOP challenger in that race.
He described the support for King as an act of “self-preservation” by Republican politicians who did not want to cross the hard-line voters in western Iowa’s conservative heartland. “But now the reality is we may actually lose the seat, so Steve has finally fired Steve,” Bertrand said.
One day after House GOP leaders stripped King of his committee assignments, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican, pushed him toward the exits; Iowa Republicans began a super PAC aimed at unseating him in 2020; and Ernst said voters in Iowa would make “the correct choice moving forward” about King, it was becoming clear that the nine-term lawmaker may finally be facing the ultimate political consequence for his remarks.
“It’s racist, we do not support it or agree with it, and I think he should find another line of work," Cheney told reporters Tuesday, going even further than the House minority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, about King’s comment to The Times: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
The House also voted nearly unanimously Tuesday to endorse a resolution that rejected white nationalism and white supremacy as “hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.” Even though it was aimed at the Iowa Republican, the broadly worded resolution was less than some lawmakers wanted to bring up, and even King spoke in favor of it.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., wanted to formally censure King and drafted a measure to do just that.
“My resolution lets Steve King know if he continues this type of behavior, then the next level would be expulsion for him,” said Rush, who was the only no vote.
The confluence of his closer-than-expected re-election, the devastating losses House Republicans suffered with educated and minority voters in November and the blunt-force nature of what he does not deny saying has made King toxic in his party’s caucus.
Yet even as it became clear that his fate may be sealed, many Democrats and, more quietly, some Republicans were wondering why he survived as long as he has given his 15-year record of making what were at a minimum racially provocative comments.
His drift toward nativism may have seemed of little consequence when he was a junior lawmaker in George W. Bush-era Washington and Republicans were more sympathetic to immigration.
But no other member of Congress has so aggressively sought to develop relationships with white nationalist groups abroad, and those groups became empowered at about the same time the then-candidate Donald Trump was making a hard line on immigration his signature issue.
As a result, King’s inflammatory remarks have gained more attention — both because of how they reflect on him and how they cast a brighter light on Trump and the Republican Party.
Some congressional Republicans saw the path King was on: Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, the chairman of the House campaign arm last year, surprised some in the party by speaking out against King shortly before the election. Stivers called King’s conduct “completely inappropriate” and said “we must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms.”
Still, for the most part, GOP officials looked the other way or offered one-off condemnations of King as his flirtation with nationalist figures like Geert Wilders of the Netherlands deepened and he made increasingly incendiary remarks about, for example, the impossibility of sustaining “civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
The tolerance of King’s conduct — and he did seem emboldened by Trump’s takeover of the party — stands in contrast to how an earlier generation of Republicans addressed public displays of racial bigotry or racial insensitivity. Bigots like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke were shunned by party officials, and when the former Senate majority leader Trent Lott used Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party to seemingly praise segregation, it cost him his leadership post.
So why would Republicans wait until King flatly defended white supremacy to punish him?
“I haven’t been following every utterance of Congressman King. I certainly followed this one, and I think the House Republican conference did the right thing,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, told reporters Tuesday.
Asked the same question, McCarthy shot back: “Have I been leader for years?”
He said he had been the top House Republican for only “a short amount of time” and was now “in a position to take action.”
But one former adviser to the last Republican leader, former Speaker Paul Ryan, pointedly noted on Tuesday that McCarthy and Steve Scalise, his second-in-command, were not as vocal as Ryan when it came to King’s eruptions.
Of course, Ryan never sought to punish King as severely as McCarthy did Monday.
Former aides to Ryan and John Boehner, another former House speaker, said both admonished King but noted that he was a backbencher of little consequence in the Capitol and argued that he had not said anything nearly as incendiary as what he did last week.
“Along with public pushback, Paul admonished King directly several times about his behavior,” said AshLee Strong, who was a spokeswoman for Ryan. “These latest comments warrant harsh consequences, and he believes McCarthy did the right thing by booting him.”
David Schnittger, a former aide to Boehner, recalled that his ex-boss called King’s comments about young migrants smuggling marijuana “deeply offensive and wrong” and pointed out that the then-speaker had privately used an obscenity to describe King in the aftermath of those remarks.
Another former aide to Boehner, Michael Steel, said King’s behavior had reached “a tipping point” but conceded that congressional Republicans also face a political imperative.
“If you’re going to win back the majority by winning suburban districts in places like California and New Jersey, it’s important to take a firm line against this sort of thing,” Steel said.
But he said publicly what many Republicans say privately: that excommunicating King will matter little if Trump is the nominee in 2020.
“Whatever we do on Steve King is on the margins compared to what the president says and does,” Steel said.
In Iowa, King’s longtime supporters said they felt that he was unfairly treated by the media and that the warm and engaging lawmaker they saw in the largely rural district was nothing like the caricature they read about.
But after defeating a little-known Democrat by only just over 3 percentage points and increasingly shifting his attention from the soybean rows and hog processing plants around Sioux City to the fringe nationalist politics in other countries, King’s defenders started to lose their patience.
“Who cares who the mayor of Toronto is when you’re from northwest Iowa?” said Mark Lundberg, the former chairman of the Sioux County Republican Party, alluding to King’s endorsement last fall of Faith Goldy, a white-nationalist candidate in Canada’s largest city. “It was just a constant.”
While calling King “a good guy,” Lundberg said that he crossed a line with his comments on white supremacy and that it was time for the district to rally behind a candidate “without all the controversy.”
Echoing Bertrand, Lundberg acknowledged that there was “great concern” in the party about how close King’s re-election was — leaving little doubt that what is partly driving the calculation to nudge him out is that he may imperil the party’s hold on what is otherwise a safe Republican seat.
Republicans there have created a super PAC called Iowa Four, named after the district, to target King, according to an Iowa Republican involved with the planning. And the conservative Club for Growth PAC has made inquiries in the state about finding a potential alternative to the incumbent.
King already has two Republican opponents, and Bertrand did not rule out another bid.
“The day of reckoning has come, and now it is just a matter of how the story ends,” crowed Nick Ryan, an Iowa Republican strategist who has long sought to oust King.
For the first time since 1899, Ryan noted, Iowa does not have a member on the House Agriculture Committee.
And two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, The Des Moines Register and the Sioux City Journal, each published an editorial Tuesday urging King to resign.
But he has given no indication that he will resign. He said on the House floor Tuesday that he “understands and recognizes the gravity of this issue” and insisted that he rejects white supremacy.
But his critics in Iowa were already testing out their attacks, suggesting voters would not return a lawmaker to office who is too controversial to even serve on any committees.
“He has been rendered impotent,” Bertrand said. “The national folks are forcing the local hand.”