The biggest election night story on Tuesday night in Iowa and nationally was U.S. Rep. Steve King losing the Republican nomination to State Senator Randy Feenstra in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District.
What led to this loss? There are several factors.
King has always had a group of detractors within the Republican Party. He was never a favorite of moderate Republicans who disagreed with his rhetoric and his stands on several issues.
When President Donald Trump was elected, King doubled-down on rhetoric that drew negative attention and press, when this would happen, King would pull the victim card and say he was under attack. While he would claim he was misinterpreted or taken out of context, he kept making unforced errors by making unnecessary statements, tweets, and endorsements.
If one doesn’t want to be labeled a racist, it doesn’t help to retweet and endorse people with neo-Nazi or white supremacist ties. Post-2016, he flirted with and embraced the alt-right.
There wasn’t just one particular moment, but it was a constant drip, drip, drip, that wore on voters and pulled from his support. The New York Times interview was just the straw that broke the camel’s back for a lot of voters. Had that interview happened in isolation from the rest of his record, he may have weathered the storm.
While I doubt King would lose a general election during a presidential election year, the 2018 election demonstrated that he was vulnerable.
He defeated his Democrat challenger, J.D. Scholten (whom he would have faced again had he won the nomination), by 3.33 percent representing 10,430 votes separating the two. This smaller margin of victory is remarkable, considering King started with a voter registration advantage before Election Day of over 70,000 voters.
King in 2018 underperformed Republicans Gov. Kim Reynolds, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, and then State Auditor Mary Mosiman (who lost her bid for re-election) within in the district.
King won the district with an average of 21 votes per precinct. In previous years a loss would have been unthinkable. If King further underperformed in staunchly Republican counties like Lyon and Sioux counties (where King had 1,072 and 3,747 fewer votes than Reynolds) or lost the counties, he lost by a wider margin, and he would have been in trouble.
Had Democrats recruited a “Bluedog” Democrat or a centrist candidate with a military record or had there been a more robust third-party or independent candidate, he may very well have lost in 2018.
Republicans and conservatives began to ask, can we find someone who can be a reliable candidate without the baggage?
Feenstra hammered King on his ineffectiveness, and it was hard for King to counter because it’s true. Even though he has a conservative voting record, what has he accomplished in nine terms in office?
- In his almost 18-years in Congress, King saw only one of his bills passed into law – one in his first term. That bill was renaming a post office. He only saw four pieces of legislation pass in the House, and three of those are non-binding resolutions.
- King was stripped of his committee assignments after his controversial remarks to the New York Times. Contrary to what King claimed during the election, it was not likely he would get those assignments back if he were re-elected.
- During his time in office, he introduced and was the chief sponsor of only 172 bills, if one includes amendments and resolutions, then the list of legislation grows to 307. That averages to be 17 pieces of legislation per year in Congress.
This record begs the question, can we find someone with a conservative voting record who has the potential to be more productive?
King’s Disconnect From Voters
While King has a loyal base, he gradually became disconnected from the district. He reliably attended Republican events in the district, but how much did he meet with constituents outside of Republican events?
In 2019, he announced town halls in all 39 counties of the Iowa 4th Congressional District, after his removal from his committees.
A review of his press releases in 2018, there were no such announcements. King did not spend nearly enough time with his constituents compared to Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst.
Feenstra outraised King by almost $600,000.
From January 1, 2019, to May 13, 2020, Feenstra raised $925,848.89 compared to King’s $330,996.74. Feenstra spent $799,305.59 compared to King’s $325,134.65. Feenstra had almost four times more cash on hand in the final weeks than King with $126,543.30 in the bank compared to King’s $32,082.59 balance.
I’ve heard King supporters complain that “Feenstra is buying the election.”
It takes money to run in a contested primary, and King, outside of the first primary he ran in, never had a serious primary opponent. This funding allowed Feenstra to run ads, send mailers, and focus on getting out the vote. In light of COVID-19 restrictions, having funds to “touch” voters when events and doorknocking was out is enormous.
Feenstra could do that, and King could not.
I had two King allies say to me in the final weeks of the race that it didn’t seem like King wanted to win. Feenstra was getting his message out. King did not.
A lower turnout election that consists of primarily activists within the party would favor King. Iowa’s 4th Congressional District’s Republican primary saw 80,677 votes cast. That’s incredible.
In 2018, 38,969 voted, in 2016, 46,993, and in 2014, 51,017.
Mail-in absentee ballots coupled with a competitive primary led to the increase. The Iowa Secretary of State’s office reports that they received 61,304 absentee ballots. That is 78 percent of the votes cast in the primary election. This, of course, is due to the Iowa Secretary of State mailing every registered voter an absentee request form due to COVID-19.
In 2018, only 6.4 percent of the vote was by absentee ballot., in 2016, it was 18 percent, and in 2014, 14.2 percent.
I’ve heard some King supporters say that there were a lot of Democrats crossing-over. I have no doubt some did, but the data doesn’t point to that being widespread.
For starters, they had a very competitive U.S. Senate primary. Also, Iowa 4th Democrats also saw larger turnouts in their primary than in years past. Democrats saw 45,429 participate in their primary. In 2018, 30,450 votes were cast, in 2016, 15,268 votes were cast, and in 2014, 12,890 voters were cast. If Democrats were crossing over, where is the growth coming from?
You also don’t see a shift in voter registration that would suggest a large number of voters crossing over as both Republicans and Democrats gained in registered voters. In contrast, “no party” voters declined when you compare registration numbers right before the primary in 2020 to numbers before the primary in 2018.
In June 2020, Republicans had 198,289 registered voters, almost 10,000 more than they saw in June 2018. Democrats had 128,136 before Tuesday’s primary, just over 5,000 more than they had just before the 2018 primary. Before Tuesday’s primary, there were 154,529 “no party” registered voters (who were unable to vote in the primary). That is almost 20,000 less than the number of “no party” voters in June 2018.
Yes, a person can change their party on election day, but considering the amount of mail-in ballots, it’s unlikely that the same-day voter registration/party change group was very large.
If anyone crossed over, the data points to independents, not Democrats, registering as Republicans.
Feenstra Won Republican Strongholds
King won 19 counties: Audubon, Boone, Buena Vista, Butler, Calhoun, Carroll, Crawford, Greene, Grundy, Hamilton, Harrison, Humboldt, Ida, Kossuth, Monona, Pocahontas, Sac, Shelby, and Wright counties.
Feenstra won 20 counties: Cerro Gordo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Clay, Dickenson, Emmet, Floyd, Franklin, Hancock, Hardin, Lyon, O’Brien, Osceola, Palo Alto, Plymouth, Sioux, Story, Webster, Winnebago, and Woodbury counties.
Feenstra won the primary earing 7,820 more votes than King, but he won the counties with the highest Republican turnout, and some Republican strongholds by a very, very wide margin.
For instance, in Sioux County, where he lives, Feenstra won 81.2 percent of the vote earning 5,285 votes more than King. He won 67.1 percent of the voter in Lyon County with 1,532 more votes. He won 69.4 percent of the vote in O’Brien County, earning 1,154 more votes than King. Feenstra also beat the incumbent congressman in Plymouth County, with 53.6 percent earning 564 more votes than King.
No one thing lost the election for King. He encountered a perfect storm with public sentiment, a quality, well-funded challenger, and unprecedented circumstances when he was most vulnerable.