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Iowa's Steve King faces toughest primary fight in years

Iowa Congressman Steve King is facing his toughest primary race in years on Tuesday, as Republicans who usually safeguard their incumbents have either shied away from defending him or backed his challengers.

While King has drawn headlines for years for his controversial comments, the message from those hoping to unseat him has focused more on what King isn't able to do in Washington. 

In 2019, King was stripped of his House committee assignments after comments he made about white nationalism and white supremacy, which prompted a swift bipartisan backlash. "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?" King said in a New York Times interview in January 2019. 

Republican candidates and outside groups have honed in on King's waning influence. He has not only lost his committee assignments, but Republicans aren't even listening to his opinions, says Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Iowa Republican leader who has endorsed King's main primary opponent, Iowa state Senator Randy Feenstra. 

"He can't even influence the committees because they're not accepting his voice," said Vander Plaats, who is president and CEO of the Family Leader, a Christian conservative group in Iowa. "Just because you can scream conservative issues really, really loud in the middle of the street, the fact is, if nobody's listening to you, it doesn't make a difference anymore."

King has chalked up his white nationalist comments in The New York Times to a misquote and "weaponizing" of the term. At a debate on Tuesday, he said the backlash and his removal were "ginned up" by the "never-Trumpers." 

"There's powers that be, some of them are money powers, not all of them, that want Steve King out of the way, because they don't want to have to do battle on life, on marriage and on budgets and on guns…and on the border," King said.  

During that debate, King repeated a claim that House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy would advocate for King to regain his status and committee seats, which McCarthy promptly denied.

"Congressman King's comments cannot be exonerated, and I never said that," McCarthy said at a May press conference. He left the decision about his membership status to the Republican Steering Committee, but added, "I think he'd get the same answer that he got before."

As King seeks his tenth term in Washington, he's facing a major cash crunch compared to his opponents. According to the latest FEC filings, King currently has a little over $32,000 cash on hand compared to Feenstra's $126,000. King was outraised by his Democratic opponents in 2014 and 2018, but has never been outpaced by a Republican challenger this close to a primary. Feenstra's cash advantage has given him the ability to spend $266,300 on ads, according to Kantar/CMAG data, while King has not put up a television ad. 

Priorities for Iowa, a super PAC supporting Feenstra, has spent nearly $290,000 on television ads, including one featuring Vander Plaats stressing that King is "no longer effective." Another ad from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has put $200,000 into this race, says, "It's been rough for Iowa farmers, and when we've needed him most, Steve King has let us down. He got kicked off the Agriculture Committee, hurting our farmers."

Public and internal polls have shown Feenstra steadily closing the gap between him and King. A poll in late April showed Feenstra down by 7 points while the latest poll, backed by the anti-King American Future Fund organization, had him ahead of King, 41% to 39%. There are two other candidates in the race and some Republicans noted that could split the vote enough among King's challengers to give him a win.

One wrinkle in the primary this year is increased absentee voting. Iowa mailed absentee ballot requests to registered voters and nearly eight times as many Republicans in the district have returned absentee ballots as in the 2018 primary. Data obtained by CBS News also shows that a large number of Republicans requesting ballots in Iowa haven't voted in the past four primaries, which some people believe could benefit Feenstra.

King has comfortably held the rural, conservative Iowan district since 2002, but in 2018 his seat was very much in play. First-time congressional candidate Democrat J.D. Scholten lost to King by just three points and Scholten is poised to be the Democrats' nominee again in 2020. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, meanwhile, won the district by 20 points that year. 

"We lost two congressional seats in Iowa (in 2018), why would we put this seat at risk by renominating him?" said David Kochel, a longtime Iowa Republican strategist who has contributed to Feenstra and helped Priorities for Iowa. "We know that the Democrats want him to win the primary because it's the only way they've got a shot at this seat."

Last Friday, President Trump tweeted endorsements for two other Iowa Republican Congressional candidates. Notably, King did not receive an endorsement from the president, something that the Feenstra campaign's latest ad seized upon. 

"President Trump just doesn't trust Steve King, and it's hurting Iowa," the ad says. 

Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have also stayed out of the primary. So has Reynolds, who told the Sioux City Journal editorial board in January 2019, "I just hope he is doing some serious reflection on what is best for the people of the 4th District."

Scott Reed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's chief political strategist, said they got involved in the race to avoid King from hurting Senator Ernst's re-election campaign and becoming a "real albatross around her neck."

"It could jeopardize the U.S. Senate if King is the nominee in the fall, and Joni Ernst has to fight for every single vote in rural Iowa. We can't afford to have this problem," he told CBS News.

But King isn't without loyalists in the Fourth District. Vander Plaats noted that King has worked tirelessly during his time in Congress to travel the district and meet constituents. Story County Republican Chair Brett Barker, who is staying neutral in the race, adds that King is "very engaging with voters one on one" and says "that helps insulate him from some of the media controversies that he's had."

In deeply Republican Sioux County, where King got 72% of the vote in 2018 and 80% in 2016, Republican county chair Tammy Kobza is backing King. "He's the one that will best defend America, its greatness and Donald Trump's agenda," she said.  

Kobza hears from people who are upset King was stripped of his committee assignments "because it was based on lies." And as for the outside money pouring into the primary, she says, "Fourth District people don't like outside people trying to tell us who to vote for."

"It's one of many factors," Kobza said about whether that spending would motivate people to support King. "Not only that, it's Steve King's record, Steve King's integrity, Steve King's leadership and his backbone."

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