SIOUX CITY – In 2002, a Republican state senator from Northwest Iowa surprised many political observers by winning election to the U.S. House.
Now in his ninth term in the House, Rep. Steve King faces a primary challenge from another Northwest Iowa GOP state senator, Randy Feenstra of Hull, who announced his candidacy for the 4th District last week.
Though Feenstra is a Senate leader and chairman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, political analysts say he faces more obstacles in making the same leap as King did 17 years ago when he emerged from a crowded primary field to capture an open seat in the then-5th District.
While King faces political headwinds for his staunch comments and views on illegal immigration and race, the incumbent still would benefit from higher name recognition and lengthy ties to GOP activists in the 39 counties that make up the 4th District, analysts said.
They also wonder how Feenstra would fare in a grueling, no-holds barred race. He has never faced a primary or general election opponent in his three terms in his ruby red district, which includes Sioux, O’Brien and Cherokee counties and an eastern sliver of Plymouth County.
Republicans and other politicos debate how a Feenstra-King matchup would unfold, while also watching if one or more Republicans also enter the 2020 primary. How much campaign money each candidate nab in the months ahead will signal support, and endorsements from state and local Republicans could be a key influencing point.
King has historically been a lackluster fundraiser. Feenstra has said he is confident he would raise the dollars needed to win the race.
State Sen. Rick Bertrand of Sioux City, who challenged King in the 2016 primary, said a Feenstra-King race "a true toss-up." Despite entering the race just months before June election, Bertrand won 35 percent of the vote against King.
Bertand said King is more politically at risk now. In November, King edged J.D. Scholten, a Democrat from Sioux City, by just 3 percent in the state’s most Republican district. In an exclusive Journal interview on Wednesday, Feenstra pointed to that slim King win as giving him a reason to run.
Bertrand said Republicans two months ago -- in voting less for King compared to 2016 and less in many counties than they did for fellow Republican Kim Reynolds as she won the governor's race -- gave an emphatic message: "It is time to move on. It is not a slam on Steve. It is just time to move on."
Professor Bradley Best of Buena Vista University said King's slim victory to a large extent can be explained by the overall national mood and the quality of the campaign Scholten ran. Best said it is too soon to say King is greatly at risk.
"Even with a lengthy record of controversial statements and negative appraisals from Republicans in Washington...I’m hesitant to code any of this as making Representative King vulnerable to a 2020 challenge from inside his own party," Best said.
For his part, King in December told the Journal the 2018 campaign proceeded like a normal re-election for him. Then a deluge of political attacks emerged, in which King was asked to defend his remarks on race and support for political candidates and parties with ties to white supremacy.
"That was the nastiest, most dishonest political gauntlet that any Iowan has been put through, in the last month, the last two to three weeks," King said. "I have tremendous appreciation for all of the Iowans who didn't take the bait."
PARTY LEADERS TO REMAIN NEUTRAL
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 all quickly said they will stay on the sidelines.
Bertrand said that is notable, since all the state's elected hierarchy endorsed King over Bertrand in spring 2016. Those vows to be neutral this time around, Bertrand said, "is an indirect endorsement of Feenstra's campaign."
Feenstra, who turns 50 in mid-January, was first elected to the Iowa Senate in 2008, and his third term in the chamber runs through 2020, so he would have to give up his state Senate seat to run for Congress.
Other Republicans considering entering the 4th District GOP primary include Rick Sanders, of Ames, and Bret Richards, of Irwin. Sanders said his decision to run will hinge on lining up supporters from longtime activists, including raising a good chunk of money, a point other Republicans noted as necessary to campaign effectively.
Woodbury County Republican Party Chairman Suzan Stewart said "there is little question that any time there are multiple candidates," an incumbent front-runner would have a substantial advantage in a primary.
"I suspect there would be many interested candidates, including some from Woodbury County. I also think you cannot underestimate the passion of 4th District Republican activists for Congressman King," Stewart said.
Bertrand said Feenstra has a strong record of supporting measures that please the political right who hold sway in the 4th District. Bertrand said therefore Feenstra and King are similar on issues, therefore style and temperament could be key attributes that determine who Republicans support.
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.
In assembling a team, Feenstra has made a notable hire, in Matt Leopold, who was political director for a portion of the 2018 winning campaign by Gov. Kim Reynolds, and he was involved in the races of the stable of Iowa Senate Republicans in 2016.
State Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said he was "surprised" Feenstra is running for the Iowa 4th seat.
“It is unnecessary. Congressman King reflects the district very well. I am fully behind him,” Schultz said.
Christopher Rants, a former Iowa House Speaker from Sioux City, tweeted that Feenstra is, "A welcome and better choice for Republicans."
One week after the election, Gov. Reynolds said the outspoken congressman should consider whether his rhetoric and actions represent the "values" of his district.
Best said he's heard from many Republican activists who want King to speak in more measured terms.
"Republican voters seemed acutely aware that King had alienated several high-profile donors and earned a post-election scolding from Governor Reynolds," Best said.