HULL, Iowa -- Randy Feenstra, in attempting the huge task of unseating 18-year Rep. Steve King, sought to appeal to the fiscal conservative wing of the Republican Party, and some right-center business groups responded with financial support.
Feenstra and his allies thereby touted his resume during his three terms in the state Senate. He also discovered the pull that the endorsement that conservative Christian group leader Bob Vander Plaats can deliver.
On top of that, several Iowa politicos told the Journal the unforeseen factor of the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted state election officials to mail absentee ballots to all registered voters. The expanded ballot access helped attract 20,000 to 30,000 voters in the 4th District who rarely, if ever, voted in a Republican Party primary. Feenstra particularly appealed to those voters.
Additionally, while King was a full-throated critic of so-called Never Trumpers, President Donald Trump didn't reciprocate with support as King fought for his political life in the tightly contested 4th District primary. Just four years earlier, King co-chaired Trump's presidential campaign in Iowa.
King, for over two decades, had been a reliable voice for conservative causes such as a tough immigration policy, defending gun rights and cutting taxes. But he went down to defeat to Feenstra, a state senator from Hull, by a margin of almost 10 percentage points Tuesday.
"While incumbents in Congress rarely lose, when your own party's leaders are openly against you, your opponent out-fundraises you by a margin of more than three-to-one, it suggests you are in serious trouble as a candidate," University of Northern Iowa Professor Chris Larimer said Wednesday.
In May, Trump had announced his support for two Iowa Republican congressional candidates, Ashley Hinson in the 1st District and David Young in the 3rd. Then on Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted out endorsements for more than 10 Republican officeholders who were in primaries, including Congressman Dusty Johnson and U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds in South Dakota, but the president never signaled any support for King.
And while Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann issued a statement in support of Feenstra shortly after the win, party leaders and elected officials stayed neutral during primary. That was unlike 2016, when Rick Bertand, who was then a state senator from Sioux City, ran against King, and U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Charles Grassley, plus Gov. Kim Reynolds, got on board with King's candidacy. As Feenstra told the Journal last week, that neutrality -- and not siding with King - spoke volumes this year.
After a late election night, Feenstra returned to Des Moines on Wednesday as the state Legislature restarted its session interrupted by COVID-19. On the drive to the state Capitol, Feenstra shared on Twitter a photo of him taking a congratulations call from Trump. "Thanks to @realDonaldTrump for the phone call! We are going to run hard, win in November, and elect a congressman who delivers," Feenstra tweeted.
Feenstra got 36,797 votes, for 45.6 percent, while King had 28,977 votes for 35.9 percent. Three other candidates took the rest of the votes, with Jeremy Taylor, a Sioux City former legislator, at 7.8 percent, former Irwin, Iowa, mayor Bret Richards, with 7.4 percent, and Steve Reeder, a real estate developer from Arnolds Park, at 3 percent.
King's campaign did not respond to an interview request, and he last week told the Journal, "People know what I stand for and believe in, and I hope they remember the type of work that I have the blessing to do for them."
However, Woodbury County Republican Party Chairwoman Suzan Stewart on Wednesday said King had increased baggage since losing his committee seats in January 2019, right as his new term began.
"The loss of committees drove people to reconsider, particularly when there were other conservative candidates available. Towards the end of the campaign, on debates sponsored by local small town radio stations, the congressman mentioned that he would have the opportunity to reapply for the committees. If the congressman could have made a case for this earlier, that might have changed the outcome, but probably not a lot," Stewart said.
The committees stripping came after, in a New York Times story on immigration, King was quoted as asking, "White nationalist, white supremacist, 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?"
The published remarks fueled a national backlash. King has repeatedly insisted the Times reporter misquoted him, and that Republican leaders were too skittish over the fallout to reinstate him to his committees.
"Representative King’s wounds and liabilities are all self-inflicted. The loss of committee assignments in early 2019 signaled that he was viewed as a malignancy by the leadership of his party. There’s really no coming back from a development of that type, especially when we learned that there was no foundation for his claim that his committee assignments would be restored," Buena Vista University Professor Bradley Best said.
The primary victory by Feenstra doesn't immediately end King's political career, as his House term runs seven more months. And while Democrats, who had long ago grown to despise King for incendiary comments, chortled over his loss, their chances to win the GOP voter-rich 4th District in November through nominee J.D. Scholten lessened greatly, University of Iowa professor Tim Hagle said.
Hagle added, "If King won (the primary), there would be a reasonable chance Democrats could pick up the seat."
Scholten in a Wednesday fundraising appeal wrote, "We’re on to November against Randy Feenstra, a corporate-backed career politician who’s already made it clear that he’ll sell Iowa’s 4th district to the highest bidder."
Some perspective -- if Feenstra beats Scholten, he will be the first Sioux County resident to serve in the U.S. House since 1965, when Charles Hoeven of Alton wrapped a two-decades tenure in that chamber.
Some unease with King had cropped up over King's narrow win of 3 percent over Scholten in 2018, Woodbury County's Stewart said. As the primary campaign cycle went on, some Republicans became more visible with their King discontent, withholding campaign money.
As it became clear late Tuesday that Feenstra would win, Nick Ryan, who ran the Team Iowa PAC that delivered money to Republicans over the last decade, tweeted out, "Love watching these results...King is getting crushed... proud of you, Iowa!"
Feenstra used the Victory Enterprises political consulting team based in Davenport, Iowa, to help steer his campaign. Brian Dumas, the CEO of Victory Enterprises, said the Secretary of State decision decision to mail every registered voter an absentee ballot request due to COVID-19 "dramatically changed turnout in two ways."
First, Dumas said, the number of expected primary voters jumped from 50,000 to what looks to be nearly 81,000, plus it "dramatically changed the type of Republican that voted."
He said normally "primaries are dominated by what we would call a 2/4 primary voter, meaning the Republican has voted in at least two of the last four GOP primaries."
However, as of Monday there were over 23,000 absentee ballots returned from voters who had not voted in any of the last four Republican primaries, resulting in " a huge anomaly," Dumas said.
He added, "We were able to adjust in real-time because of the grassroots, digital and financial infrastructure we had built."
For the entire year of 2019, King amassed $263,322, far below the $721,427 raised by Feenstra. As the year ended, Feenstra had nearly a half million dollars in cash available, or 15 times King's figure. That cash resulted in a slew of campaign ads -- primarily in Sioux City, but later in other markets -- touting Feenstra's conservative credentials.
Sarah Chamberlain, treasurer of Defending Main Street super PAC and CEO of Republican Main Street Partnership PAC, led support by those Washington-based groups to plow money in support of Feenstra.
Chamberlain said Feenstra held business world bona fides and key clout from serving as Iowa Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman.
"He is socially conservative and fiscally conservative. That's great, that's what the district requires," Chamberlain said, and she added that Feenstra could credibly be seen as a good alternative to, or "substitute" for, King.
Chamberlain said the Defending Main Street messaging was on Feenstra's record of accomplishments, and leaving aside King's controversial statements on race and other topics, since Iowa Republicans know those cold.
Chamberlain said she knew Feenstra had the goods to defeat King from her first meeting with him, noting that she wrote a $5,000 check on the spot.
"After meeting Randy and talking to Randy, I saw a path to victory," she said. "We have a pathway for the first time in 18 years to take Steve King out."