Why Steve King's Iowa constituents ended his toxic career

The question isn't why Steve King's toxic career is now over; the question is why it took so long.
Image: Steve King
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, questions witnesses during a House Judiciary Committee hearing concerning the oversight of the U.S. refugee admissions program, on Capitol Hill, on Oct. 26, 2017.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

The beginning of the end for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) came early last year. The far-right Republican congressman was already a notorious figure in modern American politics, after years of ugly rhetoric on matters of race and immigration, but as 2019 got underway, the Iowan shared a line with the New York Times that was new.

"White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?" the eight-term GOP congressman said. "Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?"

His own party's leaders scrambled to denounce King's rhetoric, and soon after, they stripped him of his committee assignments. For the last two years, the Republican lawmaker could vote on bills once they reached the House floor, but his presence on Capitol Hill was otherwise rendered meaningless.

Yesterday, King's own constituents pulled the plug on his toxic career.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who has a long history of racist and outrageous remarks, lost his long-held House seat in a Republican primary on Tuesday, NBC News projected. With 98 percent of the vote counted, King trailed his main rival, state Sen. Randy Feenstra, by 7,866 votes, or 45.7 percent to 35.9 percent.

The incumbent's primary defeat comes just two years after he narrowly won re-election in his conservative district, defeating J.D. Scholten (D) in 2018 by just 3 percentage points. Scholten was hoping for a 2020 rematch, though given the political leanings of northwestern Iowa, Feenstra is well positioned to succeed King in the U.S. House.

The broader question is why King lost this year, after many years of racist rhetoric and repulsive controversies. After all, the Republican lawmaker's record of offenses didn't start in 2019. Why did he persevere in GOP politics, enjoying the support of constituents in election after election, up until now?

Maybe King's loss of clout after losing his committee assignments left him looking politically impotent. Maybe local Republicans were waiting for a credible primary challenger to come along and Feenstra fit the bill. Maybe it mattered locally when state and national GOP leaders abandoned King once he became too embarrassing to defend. Maybe primary voters in Iowa's 4th district expected King to lose to Scholten in the fall, so they rallied behind Feenstra to prevent the seat from flipping party hands.

Maybe it was some combination of all these possible elements.

Regardless, King, who recently turned 71, is almost certainly finished as an elected official. For those who value decency, he won't be missed.