Iowa voters decide Rep. King’s fate, pick Ernst’s challenger

National

FILE – In this Aug. 23, 2019, file photo, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, speaks during a news conference in Des Moines, Iowa. King is on the outs with a significant bloc of his long-reliable conservative base, but not for almost two decades of incendiary utterances about abortion, immigrants and Islam. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republicans in northwest Iowa decided Tuesday whether they’ve had enough of conservative lightning rod Steve King, after tolerating the congressman’s incendiary comments about immigrants and white supremacy for nearly two decades.

The nine-term Republican, shunned by his party leadership in Washington and many of his longtime supporters at home, was in the fight for his career against four challengers— including well-funded state Sen. Randy Feenstra. After polls closed Tuesday night, it wasn’t immediately clear whether King had survived the primary challenge.

Several former King supporters are now backing Feenstra’s campaign. They argued that King’s loss of clout, even more than the continuous string of provocative and racially-charged statements over his career, was reason enough for turning on him.

Iowa Democrats also chose a challenger for Republican freshman Sen. Joni Ernst in a race earlier thought to heavily favor Ernst until her approval shrank over the past year. Des Moines businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, who raised the most money and garnered the widest cross-section of the Iowa Democratic coalition of elected officials and labor unions, won the nomination over three others.

But the 4th District Republican primary appeared to be the most competitive, and dramatic as it posed the greatest challenge to the conservative lightning rod’s career.

King was stripped of his committee assignments in 2018 for comments appearing to question the criticism of white nationalism in an era of increased sensitivity among Republicans nationally about the alt-right and white supremacists. The congressman also made controversial remarks through the years about immigrants, Islam and abortion.

“There is a little bit of concern that he’s become tone deaf to some of these issues,” longtime King supporter Ann Trimble Ray said, referring to voters’ concern that King has been marginalized in Congress, though she remains a believer of the congressman.

If King loses, establishment Republicans suggest the state’s lone GOP-held U.S. House seat would likely remain in the party’s hands, while a King primary victory could jeopardize the seat by setting up a rematch with the Democrat who came within 2 percentage points of beating him two years ago.

King has been vastly outspent by Feenstra and conservative groups backing him, including onetime King backer National Right to Life, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group.

Yet the crowded field, which includes a former county supervisor and two businessmen, could benefit King by siphoning supporting from Feenstra. To avoid a nominating convention, a winning primary candidate must receive at least 35 percent of the vote.

Democrats chose from four relative unknowns to take on Ernst in what has has shaped up to be a more competitive Senate race than expected.

Ernst’s job approval and overall favorable ratings have dropped in the past year as she has sought to balance support for President Donald Trump, who is popular with Republicans but far less so among others in the state.

Greenfield appeared to have an edge, in part because of her compelling story of being widowed as a young mother and owing her rebound to Democratic priorities, Social Security and union benefits.

Perhaps most notably, the 55-year-old Greenfield has impressed with her fundraising, bringing in more than $7 million since entering the race last year. That’s at least $5 million more than any of her Democratic opponents and reflects the endorsement of the Democrats’ national Senate campaign arm.

While Ernst has lost some of her footing, it’s difficult to say how the Senate race proceeds in light of the continuing pandemic, the uncertain economy and now protests over over police treatment of African Americans, including in Iowa where Trump won by more than 9 percentage points in 2016.

One recent data point, lost on many except Iowa Democratic leaders amid the ongoing crises: Registered Democrats in Iowa edged registered Republicans in March for the first time in more than six years, and now also outnumber voters unaffiliated with either party.

“Anybody who can predict what the state of the economy will be, any sense of community people have, where the partisan tendencies go between now and November, it’s just really hard to say,” said senior Ernst adviser David Kochel.

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