The Slatest

Goodbye, Steve King

King stares forward pensively, with his hand on his chin.
Iowa Rep. Steve King in Boone, Iowa, on on Aug. 13. Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Openly racist Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa has been, at long last, voted out of Congress, losing his GOP primary battle Tuesday to state Sen. Randy Feenstra. The nine-term congressman lost the five-way contest in Iowa’s 4th District by nearly 10 points, 45 to 36, bringing to a close his generally repugnant chapter in American political life. The 71-year-old’s loss, however, comes not so much from any racial epiphany in the district, but rather the impact of King’s diminished role in the GOP after being stripped of his committee assignments last year, and the once unthinkable prospect of the GOP losing the seat altogether in a district that Donald Trump won by 30 points in 2016.

For 17 years, King was able to command the support of his district, which at 93 percent white is one of the least diverse in the nation, and used Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status to leverage a national profile within the party. Republican hopefuls for higher office, after all, arrive in Iowa every four or so years looking to drum up support wherever they can find it, white nationalist or not apparently. Over the last two decades, King dabbled in a lot of amateur racial theory, took it upon himself to defend “Western civilization,” and was a little too interested in demographics, both in America and globally. During his tenure, King carved out a reputation for making inflammatory racist remarks that flirted with the fringe, and sometimes his ever-so-slightly coded language went even further. The final straw for Republican congressional leaders was King’s 2019 interview with the New York Times, where he asked: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?”

But that was just the latest in a long, long line of objectionable remarks. Things King has said (or tweeted): “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”; he’s openly touted the “Great Replacement,” a white nationalist conspiracy theory; and he said of undocumented immigrant children, 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.” That’s just a sampling of King’s noxious beliefs and theories; it literally goes on and on. Throughout, King palled around with neo-Nazis, retweeted neo-Nazis, pushed neo-Nazi ideology on race, but wasn’t a neo-Nazi?

King’s days in Congress appeared to be numbered even before Tuesday’s final result came in; the national Republican establishment had already essentially abandoned King. The minority leader stripped King of his committee assignments, including on the Agriculture Committee, his locus of power in the Capitol, leaving him adrift and vulnerable within his own party. And the 2018 midterms revealed that King was already teetering in his own district, as Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten came within 3 points of defeating the incumbent in the deeply conservative district. Two years earlier, in 2016, King had breezed to victory by 22 points in the district Trump carried by 27 points. Trump wanted to build a wall, something King had been saying for years; it earned him an Oval Office visit in the early days of Trump’s presidency.

But now, fearing the district could flip, as Scholten again lined up the Democratic nomination to take another whack at King, national and state Republicans rallied behind Feenstra. Feenstra positioned himself not necessarily as anti-King, but a more effective ally to the president given King’s hobbled reputation and curtailed influence. “The 4th District needs a seat at the table, an effective conservative voice,” Feenstra said in a May 26 debate. “Our district, our president, deserves an effective conservative leader in Congress.” Republicans and the party leadership agreed, and Feenstra’s $925,000 in campaign donations was nearly three times what the sitting congressman was able to raise. Mainstream GOP super PACs invested in Feenstra, and Republican organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Right to Life Committee aligned behind him. A handful of Republican congressmen even donated directly to Feenstra’s campaign.

With Feenstra’s win Tuesday, the party appears to have gotten exactly what it wanted, as a number of House race forecasters moved the contest from the “lean Republican” to the “safe Republican” ledger. The Democrat, Scholten, will remain formidable because of the war chest he’s been able to amass, but it will now be even more of an uphill battle to swipe the seat. Before voters went to the polls Tuesday, King made one last pitch to Republicans in the state. “Whatever they might say about Steve King,” he said in a video, “I have never let you down.” That is a problem for another day, but for now: goodbye, Steve King, and good riddance.

For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to The Gist on Apple Podcasts or listen below.