Iowa’s elections are among dozens of congressional primaries taking place amid a backdrop of a global pandemic, civil unrest and a national reckoning over racism and police violence in eight states and the District of Columbia. Several of the elections, which in some states also include the presidential race, had been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Former vice president Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee although in some states his onetime rivals, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) remain on the ballot. Primaries award the delegates Biden would need to secure the nomination.
The key issues in King’s race, however, have been years in the making. He lost his House committee assignments in January 2019 after questioning in a New York Times interview why the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” should be considered offensive. It was perhaps the most egregious in a long record of pointed comments demeaning of minorities, immigrants and multiculturalism, punctuated by dealings with far-right European activists.
While Feenstra has hesitated to attack King directly for his views, he has not been shy about questioning his relevance in Washington — particularly after losing his seat on the House Agriculture Committee, an important sinecure for the rural western Iowa district.
“The 4th District needs a seat at the table, an effective conservative voice,” Feenstra said in a May 26 debate hosted by WHO-TV. “To me, this election is about real results, not campaign rhetoric. … Our district, our president deserves an effective conservative leader in Congress.”
While the district is historically conservative, the controversies swirling around King have taken a toll on his popularity. In 2016, King won by 22 points over his Democratic opponent. In 2018, he beat first-time candidate J.D. Scholten by barely 3 points, and now Scholten is running again with a campaign war chest five times bigger than any GOP candidate — and many prominent Republicans fear King may not survive.
Nathan L. Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Politics and a veteran political handicapper, said a King win would leave the seat clearly vulnerable to Democrats. Should King lose, he said, Republicans would be much more likely to hold on — and improve their long-shot chances at the House majority.
That, in part, has explained the influx of support for Feenstra, who has raised about $926,000 to King’s $331,000 — a paltry sum for a nine-term incumbent in a competitive race. Meanwhile, a GOP super PAC affiliated with the moderate Main Street Partnership, Defending Main Street, spent $100,000 to oust King, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $200,000 more behind Feenstra.
But there have been notable changes of heart inside Iowa, too. Among those who are backing Feenstra is activist Bob Vander Plaats, a GOP political kingmaker in western Iowa who once was one of King’s staunchest allies. In an ad funded by the Priorities for Iowa super PAC, Vander Plaats said King was “no longer effective” in Washington — echoing Feenstra’s central campaign message.
“He can’t deliver for President Trump, and he can’t advance our conservative values,” he said. “Thankfully Iowa has a better choice.”
King has fought back, leveraging his high profile in the district and long record as an archconservative nemesis of immigration and abortion. In a recent Sioux City Journal op-ed, he called the primary race against Feenstra the “epicenter of the battle against the swamp,” labeling his opponents — and Feenstra’s backers — “billionaire coastal RINO-NeverTrumper, globalist, neocon elites.”
“This race is nationalized because I’m effective,” he wrote. “I have run to the sound of the guns in every important fight. I have walked towards the fire and through the fire. I’m deeply tempered by the experience. I can face the swamp down because we’re right and they’re wrong and they know it.”
Countering his loss of committee assignments, King claimed at a candidate forum last month that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had promised his “time for exoneration” would come if he is reelected and that his committee seats would be restored.
McCarthy flatly denied any such promise to reporters last month: “Congressman King’s comments cannot be exonerated, and I never said that,” he said.
Craig Robinson, who runs the website IowaRepublican.com, said Feenstra offers the district everything King does as a conservative with none of the baggage.
“How much does the voter want to put up with? The activists like the guy who gets on talk radio and is fighting the good fight, but when you represent a district there’s a lot of things that your district needs, and that’s where there’s an appetite to move on,” Robinson said.
A national Republican strategist with knowledge of the race, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about a GOP incumbent, predicted it would be “very close.”
There is a slim possibility that no nominee will be chosen Tuesday: If no candidate wins at least 35 percent of the vote, the nominee will instead be chosen at a June 13 party convention, where King might stand a better chance among party activists.
Elsewhere in Tuesday’s primaries, Democratic votes will choose a Senate nominee to take on first-term incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) in what promises to be one of most competitive Senate races of the year.
Business executive Theresa Greenfield has won the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and millions of dollars of spending by outside groups that see her as having the best chance of unseating Ernst. But she must emerge from a four-way primary against retired Navy Adm. Mike Franken, insurance company owner Eddie Mauro and lawyer Kimberly Graham.
While Greenfield has raised a staggering $7 million, she has spent only about $2.3 million ahead of the primary, and Mauro has run a spirited campaign — spending virtually all of the $1.4 million of personal funds he has sunk into the race. Neither Franken nor Graham has broken $1 million in fundraising.
In other Senate races, voters are likely to nominate Sen. Steve Daines (R) and Gov. Steve Bullock (D) to face off in Montana, while Democratic voters in New Mexico are poised to nominate Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who is abandoning a promising climb up the House leadership ranks for a run at the other chamber.
New Mexico Republicans are set to choose either former TV weatherman Mark Ronchetti, former college professor and federal official Gavin Clarkson or activist Elisa Martinez in a race that nonpartisan forecasters say tilts Democratic.
Voters will also pick nominees for open House seats being vacated by Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), David Loebsack (D-Iowa) and Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), as well as Lujan’s safely Democratic seat in New Mexico.
That last race in New Mexico has garnered particular attention due to the candidacy of Valerie Plame — the former CIA officer whose cover was blown by a top aide to Vice President Richard B. Cheney, leading to a major Washington scandal and turning her into a figure of national intrigue. But her profile has not translated into an easy path to the nomination.
Key figures in New Mexico and nationally have backed civil rights lawyer Teresa Leger Fernandez, who has played up her deep roots in the district. Among her backers is Emily’s List, the influential Democratic women’s group, whose affiliated super PAC spent $300,000 on her behalf, as well as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s political committee, which has spent more than $400,000.
Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.