After making racist statements for years, Steve King is starting to lose support in the Republican Party. But Republicans still broadly expect him to win his congressional race next week, and aside from losing some financial backing, it’s not clear anything will change for him if he comes back to Congress next year.
One week before Election Day, Rep. Steve Stivers, the chair of the House Republican campaign arm, disavowed King in a tweet. “Congressman Steve King’s recent comments, actions, and retweets are completely inappropriate. We must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms, and I strongly condemn this behavior.”
Three corporations — Land O’Lakes, Intel, and Purina — that had previously donated to him publicly announced they would not give him any more money in the future, putting some pressure on other donors to withdraw support.
King, an Iowa member of Congress, has been making his Republican colleagues squirm for years. There was the time he suggested that nonwhite subgroups had not made any “contributions” to civilization. And the time he said that most of the children who immigrated to the US illegally had “calves the size of cantaloupes” from all the drugs he said they were carrying across the border. There were the various instances of him meeting with Nazi sympathizers. And the time last week when he endorsed a white supremacist to be mayor of Toronto.
For years, Republicans in Washington, DC, and Iowa brushed that off as just Steve King being Steve King. His colleagues in the House would condemn the individual comments, and then the story would move on. Voters in his western Iowa district sent him back to Congress again and again, ever since he was first elected in 2002.
But in the wake of a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead, some in the political sphere are looking at King’s comments and affiliations with white supremacists in a new light.
For Stivers, said a source familiar with his thinking, it was “the increasing volume of actions” of this ilk that prompted the rebuke.
“We’ve just had more of these instances,” said Craig Robinson, who runs the Iowa Republican blog. “They’re not isolated anymore.”
“We’re used to this stuff, but I think the danger is if something takes hold and it really becomes a narrative — then you’ve got to kind of take notice,” Robinson said. “And I feel like this is a little different.”
The timing and the tenor of Stivers’ condemnation is “unprecedented,” said Doug Heye, a former aide to Eric Cantor when he was House majority leader.
There are certain House Republicans who have been vocal in their condemnation of King at every turn — for instance, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who today on MSNBC said “his comments and his actions are disgusting,” and added, “I would never cast a ballot for someone like Steve King.” But Stivers’ comment is the most sweeping condemnation from a member of Republican leadership.
But beyond that, it’s not clear that anything will change for King.
The backlash comes in the final week of King’s most competitive reelection campaign in years. His opponent, Democrat J.D. Scholten, has outraised King dramatically, and on Tuesday, the Cook Political Report changed its rating of the race in Scholten’s favor, moving it into the Lean Republican column.
But Republicans still expect that King will win in his rural, conservative district, where both he and Trump won with 61% of the vote in 2016.
“That district is just so Republican. It would take a tidal wave to knock him out,” said Cory Crowley, a Republican strategist who does work in Iowa.
The National Republican Congressional Committee followed up Stivers’ comment with a declaration that it would not spend in the district. But that was not a change of course: The committee had not spent any money in the district previously, and had not intended to do so, according to the source familiar with the matter.
Some Republicans pointed to the potential political benefits for House members in competitive races — Stivers’ tweet would give more moderate Republicans cover and something to point to as a means of distancing themselves from King’s remarks, without having to actually engage on the topic themselves.
If King wins, it’s not clear how much will change for him.
“So many times over the past two years, I’ve gotten the question, others have gotten the question, ‘well, why won’t Paul Ryan speak up on this or that?’ And the reality is, it’s very easy for me on the outside now to say whatever I want. There are no ramifications or penalties for that. House leadership has a very different charge, and they have to keep a kind of disparate and diverse group of members moving in a direction,” said Heye.
He pointed to former speaker John Boehner’s decision to remove certain members from committees as punishment. “The backlash can be pretty severe, which makes it harder to get anything done,” he said.
And aside from Stivers’ comment, publicly, little has changed in what Republicans are willing to say about their colleague — few are willing to engage in any sort of forceful condemnation directed specifically at King. When asked for comment, AshLee Strong, a spokesperson for Speaker Paul Ryan, referred BuzzFeed News to her response from earlier in the year. “The speaker has said many times that Nazis have no place in our politics, and clearly members should not engage with anyone promoting hate.”
Spokespeople for two other members of House GOP leadership, Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, both of whom also contributed to King’s campaign through their PACs, did not respond to requests for comment.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who also contributed to King’s campaign and has attended fundraisers for him in the past, spoke out against racist and anti-Semitic comments in response to questions from local reporters, but did not specifically denounce King or say if Republicans should take any action against him. “I think every public official ought to set an example of being against any sort of racism, anti-Semitism, and that’s the standard I try to set,” Grassley said, according to an interview he gave Wednesday, the audio of which was provided by his office. When asked if King should be censured, Grassley responded: “The people of his district have a chance every two years to do that.”
In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, Jewish leaders have circulated a letter calling on major donors to pull funding from King’s campaign. BuzzFeed News reached out to more than a dozen corporate and trade association PACs on Wednesday that have contributed to King’s 2018 campaign, including those affiliated with Koch Industries, American Bankers Association, and the NFL.
Only three of them responded: AT&T, NCTA — the Internet and Television Association — and the National Association of Home Builders. NCTA, whose members include Comcast, Showtime Networks, Discovery, Inc., and HBO, was the only one to explicitly say immediately it was no longer backing King.
“As an organization and industry that highly values diversity and inclusion, we denounce the Congressman’s comments and no longer support his campaign,” said Brian Dietz, a spokesperson for the group. “Just two weeks ago, the cable industry gathered in New York to celebrate diversity and raise more than $1.4 million to support programs that promote the career advancement of women and multi-ethnic professionals throughout our ranks. We are proud of our track record on diversity and are proud to support policymakers who share our commitment to a diverse America.”
AT&T initially said that it would "take all concerns very seriously" when its PAC committee meets next year to discuss future campaign contributions. On Friday, the company tweeted an answer.
NAHB did not give an indication of whether they would be holding contributions to King in the future.
“Our contribution to Representative King was given before these developments,” said Paul Lopez, spokesperson for NAHB. “Since then, we have started a review process in which we are still in the middle of. So we cannot comment any further at this time.”
Iowa Republicans believe this might prove problematic for King down the road — maybe not this year, and maybe not in two years, but perhaps after redistricting, when the composition of his district is likely to change.
“He’s kind of known now for being this provocative agitator, almost, versus for what he’s doing for his district,” said Robinson. “And I think that’s dangerous.”
The uproar has been a boon for Scholten, who has received an uptick of attention and funding. On Wednesday, Sen. Kamala Harris sent out a fundraising email for him, highlighting King’s remarks. But even in a favorable year for Democrats, Iowa Republicans just don’t think the 4th District will suddenly swing Democrat.
Anything King has done in the past “hasn’t been enough to make people move on, to make people fire him,” said Nick Ryan, an Iowa Republican consultant who was part of an effort to primary King in 2016. “Maybe now they will,” he added.
But, he said, “I’m not holding my breath.”