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Steve King moves from lightning rod to lame duck

Iowa Republican made a career out of demonizing immigrants

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, holds a news conference on sanctuary cities with online personalities Diamond and Silk at the Capitol in June 2019.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, holds a news conference on sanctuary cities with online personalities Diamond and Silk at the Capitol in June 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Iowa Rep. Steve King has courted controversy and rarely shied away from a fight during his time in Congress. With his primary defeat Tuesday, the longtime Republican lightning rod is officially a lame duck.

King’s career is spotted with inflammatory comments. But his unwavering positions on abortion and immigration provided him a high profile. He was a national co-chairman of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign and once upon a time, House leadership appointed him chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.

His support among the GOP started to dry up last year when remarks he made to The New York Times questioning how labels like “white supremacists” became offensive forced leaders to distance themselves.

[Rep. Steve King is toxic to K Street]

“White nationalists, white supremacists, western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” King told the Times.

Those remarks prompted calls for resignation from some key top Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney.

“I think you’ve seen now repeated — this wasn’t the first time — but his language questioning whether or not the notion of white supremacy is offensive is absolutely abhorrent. It’s racist. We do not support it or agree with it,” Cheney said.

King’s ties to white supremacists was not a secret. In 2018, he endorsed a far-right Toronto mayoral candidate who had appeared on a podcast for the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.

In a tweet, King called Faith Goldy an “excellent candidate” who was “pro Rule of Law, pro Make Canada Safe Again, pro balanced budget, & … BEST of all, Pro Western Civilization and a fighter for our values.”

House Democrats attempted to censure King for his racist commentary in January 2019, just after they took the chamber majority.

The censure resolution from Illinois Rep. Bobby L. Rush was a direct rebuke of King, who had compared immigrants to livestock and dogs and made other racist comments, including on the House floor.

“Representative Steve King of Iowa, by his despicable conduct, has dishonored himself and brought discredit to the House and merits the censure of the House for the same,” the resolution read in part.

But the effort fizzled, and the House instead approved a less explicit disapproval that rejected white supremacy without painting King with the same brush. King even voted for it.

He was rebuked by his own party when the Republican Steering Committee unanimously decided in January 2019 not to seat him on any committees for the 116th Congress.

King tried to downplay this while on the campaign trail, asserting at a candidate forum last month that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy promised his “time for exoneration” would come if he were reelected and he would have his committee seats restored.

McCarthy denied making that promise.

“Congressman King’s comments cannot be exonerated, and I never said that,” he told reporters.

In August 2019, King found himself in hot water again and facing calls for his resignation, when he asserted that rape and incest have been integral to population growth.

“What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?” he said at an event in Urbandale, Iowa.

In 2013, it looked like there could be a real chance of a bipartisan overhaul of immigration policy, when the Senate passed comprehensive legislation with bipartisan support.

King, however, spoke out against giving Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, a path to legal status.

“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” he said.

While members of GOP leadership at that time criticized him, no action was taken. King doubled down the same week during a radio appearance.

“This is real. We have people that are … drug mules, that are hauling drugs across the border and you can tell by their physical characteristics what they’ve been doing for months,” he said.

Speaker John A. Boehner called the comments “wrong” and his language “hateful.” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called them “inexcusable.”

That same year, King sent out an SOS on Twitter when advocates for immigration legislation came to his office and asked for a meeting.

“20 brazen self professed illegal aliens have just invaded my DC office,” King tweeted.

He then demanded Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., co-sponsors of Senate immigration legislation, prevent future “invasions.”

Tension simmered following the publication of an article by Texas Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro in Texas Monthly in which he described an interaction when he thanked Boehner for denouncing King’s comments.

“What an asshole,” the speaker responded, according to Castro.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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