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Shunned by his party, Iowa’s Steve King fights for his seat

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Rep. Steve King is fighting for his political life — but not because he’s compared immigrants crossing the border illegally to cattle. His Republican opponents in next week’s primary aren’t raking him over the coals for making light of rape and incest. His chief rival’s ads don’t mention the time he wondered when the term “white supremacist” became offensive.

Instead, the nine-term congressman known for his nativist politics is fighting to prove he can still deliver for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. Since Republican leaders stripped him of his committee assignments, in a rare punishment, King has been dogged by questions over whether he’s lost all effectiveness. Some longtime supporters are turning away, not because of his incendiary remarks but because they think he can no longer do the job.

“We all want to feel that we’re being represented in Washington, D.C., that we have a voice,” said Iowa state Sen. Annette Sweeney, a former King supporter.

Establishment Republicans in Iowa and Washington, some of whom share King’s policy views and have long tolerated his provocative remarks, have largely abandoned the congressman, throwing their weight behind Randy Feenstra, a conservative state senator.

That sets up the June 2 primary, a five-way fight in a GOP-heavy district, as a test of whether the establishment can effectively police the party and distance itself from racist and far-right voices who critics say have been amplified in recent years.

But Republican activists in King’s district, a sprawling swath of corn, soybeans and towering wind turbines, haven’t been quick to accept the influence from outsiders.

“He’s not what he’s portrayed to be by certain media outlets,” said Barb Clayton, a leading GOP activist in the district. Clayton says she “respects” King and believes his comments about white supremacy were taken out of context. Still, she’s backing one of his four opponents, though she won’t say whom, because she’s worried King’s diminished influence would cost him in November.

“My primary issue is being able to hold the seat. It makes it more difficult to do that when he’s lost his committees,” she said.

Sweeney, who has endorsed Feenstra, offered only glancing criticism of King.

“His comments at times were just off the cuff,” she said. “Sometimes some of them might have been him trying to be funny or cute, though some weren’t. In fact, some were repulsive.”

Still, Sweeney hosted two fundraisers at her home for King in 2012, when he faced what was expected to be a competitive challenge from former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, a Democrat. King won decisively.

By then, King had a reputation for controversial statements about race, immigration and religion.

In 2006, King proposed electrifying the U.S.-Mexico border fencing to curb illegal border crossings, saying, “We do that with livestock all the time.”

In 2013, he said for every one well-intended “Dreamer,” immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, 100 more “weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling drugs across the desert.

In recent years, King received scrutiny for his overtures to foreign, right-wing extremists. The outreach prompted the House campaign committee to pull its financial backing in 2018. King was stripped of his membership on the House judiciary and agriculture committees the following January after he was quoted in the New York Times seeming to defend white nationalism.

The punishment sidelined King from defending President Donald Trump during the impeachment hearings, a spotlight King would have relished. It also silenced him on agriculture policy, a blow in a district that ranks second nationally in agricultural production, according to federal statistics.

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