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AMES, Iowa — Iowa 4th District Rep. Steve King says political payback is behind a prominent Christian conservative leader’s endorsement of one of King’s Republican primary challengers.

Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader, earlier this week endorsed Randy Feenstra for Congress in western Iowa’s 4th District.

Feenstra, a state senator from Hull, is one of three Republicans challenging King, a nine-term Republican Congressman.

King said he is certain Vander Plaats’ endorsement of a long-time incumbent’s primary challenger is political payback for when King, in 2010, nominated Kim Reynolds for lieutenant governor instead of Vander Plaats.

“I know exactly what it means. It means that when I nominated Kim Reynolds for lieutenant governor, this is how that score’s getting settled,” King told reporters Friday after a town hall meeting here. “I don’t have any doubt.”

In 2010, Vander Plaats was defeated in the Republican primary in Iowa’s race for governor. But some party activists then nominated him to be lieutenant governor, which required him to square off at the party’s state convention against Reynolds, Branstad’s pick to be his running mate.

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Steve King Alton Town Hall
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Steve King Alton Town Hall

Reynolds won the convention vote, 749-579. King supported Reynolds’ nomination.

On Friday, King said he is not concerned that Vander Plaats’ endorsement will cause a significant shift among the 4th District’s Republican primary electorate.

“Those folks are pro-life, they’re pro-marriage, pro-constitution, pro-rule of law, pro-fiscal responsibility, pro-Second Amendment, pro-repeal Obamacare. I mean, I own almost all those issues,” King said. “So why would they turn on somebody that’s delivered them everything they want? Unless they’re getting a little more than they want.”

Vander Plaats disputed King’s accusation. In a text message response to the bureau, Vander Plaats said he is “thrilled” that Reynolds became lieutenant governor and has since become Iowa’s governor.

“So, no political payback,” Vander Plaats said in the text message. “My endorsement has everything to do with endorsing a candidate that will provide effective representation that is reflective of all the good people in the 4th District. The people of the 4th District deserve (the) best representation (of) the candidates in the race, (and) the best prepared candidate is Randy Feenstra.”

King in November survived the closest election race of his nine-term career in Congress, beating Sioux City Democrat J.D. Scholten by 3 percent. Early this year, King was stripped of his committee assignments for his comments defending white supremacy that appeared in a national news story. King has maintained his comments were misheard.

Those events have emboldened more Republicans than ever to mount a primary challenge to King. The other Republicans running in the 4th District are Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor and former Irwin mayor Bret Richards.

King spoke and took questions for an hour at the town hall in Ames, easily one of the more liberal-leaning areas of the 4th District. The crowd at times grew restless when King spoke about President Donald Trump’s comments about four Democratic Congresswomen that were widely rebuked as racist, the conditions at immigration detention centers at the southern U.S. border, and climate change.

But there were also King supporters in the crowd, who at times made their presence known as well.

King largely deflected questions about Trump’s comments, saying he thinks Congress would have been better off had it not waded into discussion about them.

Trump tweeted on Sunday, “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

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Steve King close-up Le Mars Town Hall
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Steve King Le Mars Town Hall

Each of the four Democratic Congresswomen to which Trump referred is a woman of color, all are U.S. citizens and three were born in the U.S.

Then, at a campaign rally Wednesday in North Carolina, Trump was talking about the Congresswomen when the crowd broke into a chant of “Send them back.”

“I don’t want to see the temperature go up over language,” King told the town hall crowd Friday. “I want to see the temperature come down. I think we ought to take a deep breath and let some of this slide (and focus on policy).”

The answer drew a raucous response from the crowd.

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