HULL, Iowa -- Randy Feenstra watched last November as fellow Republican Steve King pulled out a narrow 3 percent win in Iowa's 4th District.
"Wow, we just about lost in the most heavily Republican district in Iowa," Feenstra, a state senator from Hull, recalled Wednesday in an exclusive interview with the Journal.
Feenstra, who has served in the Senate since 2009, said King's close call led him to consider a challenge to the nine-term congressional incumbent in the 2020 GOP primary. After getting his family's blessing over the Thanksgiving holiday, Feenstra said he spent the month of December speaking with a host of Republicans across the 4th District, which covers 39 Northwest and North Central Iowa counties.
Those conversations, Feenstra said, confirmed he would have the electoral and financial support for a successful campaign, which he publicly announced Wednesday.
"This isn't a whim," Feenstra told the Journal. "We weren't going to do this unless there was a true passion for change in the 4th District. From the farming community to business people, people said, 'It is time. We just need a fresh face.' "
In his official campaign announcement, Feenstra did not mention King by name but alluded to the many controversies surrounding the Republican congressman, an outspoken conservative whose staunch views on illegal immigration and support for politicians and parties with white supremacist ties, has drawn widespread criticism.
"Today, Iowa's 4th District doesn't have a voice in Washington because our current representative's caustic nature has left us without a seat at the table," Feenstra said. "We don't need any more sideshows or distractions. We need to start winning for Iowa families."
King's campaign responded forcefully to Feenstra's primary challenge just hours after he announced his campaign.
King's son, Jeff, who serves as his father's campaign chairman, said Feenstra told him in late December, 'I love your dad and I would never run against him.'
"Today, misguided political opportunism, fueled by establishment puppeteers, has revealed that Mr. Feenstra is easily swayed by the lies of the Left," King said in a statement. "From his statements, it appears that Mr. Feenstra offers Republican voters nothing but warmed over talking points from liberal blogs and failed Democratic candidates.”
CLEARING THE FIELD
By launching his campaign 17 months ahead of the June 2020 primary, Feenstra said he increased the chances of a one-on-one matchup with King. Feenstra said "multiple" prospective GOP candidates, after learning of his campaign in recent days, told him they would not run.
Still, former Sioux County Republican Party Chairman Mark Lundberg, of Orange City, said, as a few days ago, he knew of "strong interest from more than one" prospective GOP candidate, whom he did not identify.
Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said the state party would remain neutral in a King-Feenstra race, and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst also will stay on the sidelines. King served as one of the co-chairs for Reynolds' gubernatorial campaign last year.
“As we are in all legitimate primary contests, the Republican Party of Iowa will remain neutral in this race," Kaufmann said. "The good people of the 4th District will have the ultimate say."
Senate District 2, which Feenstra has represented for 10 years, includes Sioux County, Iowa's most Republican county, and two other ruby red Northwest Iowa counties, O'Brien and Cherokee.
Feenstra, who turns 50 Monday, has risen in his caucus to become assistant majority leader and chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax policy. Last session, Feenstra was a key architect of legislation that overhauled the state's individual income tax system and produced the largest tax cut in the state's history, according to GOP backers.
In his 4th District campaign web site launched Wednesday -- feenstraforcongress.com -- Fenstra also describes himself as a "leading voice defending life" and protecting Iowa's 2nd Amendment rights, as well as his role in passing the state's Voter ID law. He also cited his support for the state's ag-based economy, renewable fuels and main street businesses.
SIOUX COUNTY ROOTS
Feenstra, who has an undergraduate degree from Dordt College in Sioux Center and a MBA from Iowa State University, worked as a sales manager for the Foreign Candy Co. in Hull for seven years, and served as the city administrator in Hull for seven years before his election as Sioux County Treasurer in 2006. Two years later, he won his first term in the Senate.
Feenstra, who has won each of three terms unopposed, acknowledged Wednesday he is up to the task of a waging a highly-contested campaign for the first time in his political career.
King's controversial statements are well known to 4th District voters, Feenstra said, so he doesn't plan to spend time rehashing them in his campaign. Instead, he will continue to make the case he would be a more effective leader.
"I am not running against King. I am showing that a difference can be made," he said.
In his announcement, Feenstra cited his support for President Trump and the need for more "effective conservative leaders in Congress who will not only support his agenda, but actually get things done."
"What we've seen this past week from the new Democratic majority in Congress is appalling," Feenstra said. "They've made it clear that they want nothing less than to raise taxes to historic levels, ignore the rule of law and undue the successes made by President Trump."
PAST PRIMARY CHALLENGES
Jeff King described Feenstra's campaign as "an obvious attempt to undermine an effective and leading congressional ally of the president." King noted Trump has referred to Steve King as "the world’s most conservative human being."
King said Feenstra's announcement Wednesday represents "the third attempt by the establishment in as many primary cycles to take the 4th District out of the hands of grassroots Republicans."
In 2014, one of Feenstra's former colleagues in the Senate, Rick Bertrand of Sioux City, mounted a late primary challenge to King, but lost 65 percent to 35 percent. King brushed off a challenge from another Sioux City Republican, Cyndi Hanson, 74 percent to 27 percent in the June 2018 primary.
In last fall's general election, King survived the closest race of of his career, 51 percent to 48 percent over Democrat J.D. Scholten, a former professional baseball player making his first run for public office.
Earlier this month, King announced plans to hold town hall meetings in each of the 39 counties in the 4th District, where registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats by more than 50,000.