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Controversial Iowa Congressman Faces Stiff Primary Challenge


Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King is trying to hold onto his seat. He has a history of making racist and anti-immigration comments. And you might remember that last year, GOP leaders stripped him of his committee assignments. So he's trying to hold onto his seat. But now some Republicans worry that if he wins his primary, he could lose to a Democrat, even in his very Republican district. Here's Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Weeks before the 2018 midterm, President Donald Trump stood before a packed arena in Council Bluffs and singled out Congressman Steve King, then running for his ninth term.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He may be - we're all - he may be the world's most conservative human being.

MASTERS: King has a history of making offensive and racist comments. Republican operative and Sioux City resident Omar Marquez lives in King's district. When Marquez worked in Washington, he says he was frequently asked why King keeps getting reelected.

OMAR MARQUEZ: You know, and I would defend him. I would say, OK, well, the people of the 4th District like him. That's why. You know, and he has stood on principle.

MASTERS: But Marquez wants a change and is backing local politician Jeremy Taylor in Iowa's primary next week. But King's past statements aren't the main part of the debate in this primary. Instead, the focus is on King's clout. He was stripped of his House committee assignments, including a seat on the all-important Agriculture Committee in 2019 after questioning when the terms white nationalist and white supremacist became offensive in an interview with The New York Times. While King still has supporters, many top Iowa Republicans have abandoned him. Among them is prominent Iowa social conservative Bob Vander Plaats, who cut an ad on behalf of one of King's opponents.


BOB VANDER PLAATS: I'm Bob Vander Plaats. Whatever you think of Steve King, it's clear he's no longer effective. He can't deliver for President Trump, and he can't advance our conservative values.

MASTERS: Vander Plaats supports Randy Feenstra, a state senator who has far outraised the congressman. Another Feenstra supporter is David Kochel, a GOP campaign strategist who says it's time for King to go.

DAVID KOCHEL: Over the years, his rhetoric has changed. His focus on issues has changed. And, you know, this is kind of what has led to the point I think we're at.

MASTERS: King only won his district by three points in 2018 to Democrat and political newcomer J.D. Scholton. And Scholton is running again and hoping for a rematch this year. Kochel says this district should never be in play for Democrats.

KOCHEL: It tells you that we're at risk of losing that seat if Congressman King is the nominee.

MASTERS: But King insists those in the party who now oppose him are scared of facing criticism. Here's King speaking during a debate on WHO TV in Des Moines this week.


STEVE KING: The "Never Trumpers" are the people that got - that ginned this all up.

MASTERS: King claims House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said he can have his committee assignments back if he's reelected. But McCarthy has said that's not true. King said at the debate he's the victim of an organized effort to oust him.


KING: It's not on me. This is on the people that made those decisions. And people need to realize, what is it about? Being misquoted in The New York Times?

MASTERS: Tuesday will show if all this work within the Republican Party is enough to push King out of Congress. But coming across as an embattled and anti-establishment congressman might be enough to get the voters back home to want to roll the dice on sending King back for a 10th term. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMER KLEIN'S "SLEEPWALKERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Clay Masters is a reporter for Iowa Public Radio and formerly for Harvest Public Media. His stories have appeared on NPR