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Republican Rep. Steve King hangs on to his seat, but just barely

Iowa voters sent King a message after years of racist rhetoric.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) is interviewed by NBC News in the rotunda of the Russell Building.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Steve King, the Iowa Republican known for regularly saying racist things and sympathizing with European and Canadian neo-Nazis, eked out a narrow win in his race for reelection to the US House.

Democrat J.D. Scholten, a former baseball player and paralegal, lost the race for Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, but by an extraordinarily narrow margin for an eight-term incumbent. About 2,500 votes separated the two men — a much slimmer margin than King has faced in past years.

Even though King still won, this narrow margin is a big deal; he has been in office since 2003 and has been saying inflammatory things for years without many consequences from Republican leaders in Washington or from his constituents.

But in 2018, the tide started to turn. The breaking point appeared to have come after the mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 Jewish worshippers and was believed to be motivated by anti-Semitism. That, combined with King recently meeting with a far-right Austrian party while he was on a trip to Europe to see Holocaust memorial sites, had Republicans stepping away from the lawmaker.

The trip was funded by a Holocaust memorial group, and King’s meeting with a party that has ties to neo-Nazis sparked outrage. Just a week before Election Day, three big corporations — Intel, the pet food company Purina, and the dairy company Land O’Lakes — announced they were pulling financial support from King’s campaign.

Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the official campaign arm for House Republicans, condemned King’s comments and actions. Stivers issued a strongly worded statement via Twitter calling King’s rhetoric “completely inappropriate.”

“We must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms, and I strongly condemn this behavior,” Stivers concluded.

It was one of the surest signs that national Republicans were abandoning King, and weren’t about to jump in to save his floundering campaign finances. Meanwhile, Scholten raised more than $1.4 million, put up multiple ads, and planned to campaign in every county in the district.

King, with about $176,000 cash in the bank, put up his first television ad in the final days before the election (which, as Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman noted, was largely a rehash of a 2014 ad).

In such a conservative district, Scholten knew he couldn’t win on Democratic votes alone, so he made a play to win over moderate Republicans and independents. He walked a fine line, supporting progressive policies like Medicare-for-all (Scholten says he supports a public option first but wants to work toward Medicare-for-all eventually) as well as the Second Amendment. It’s a strategy that Pennsylvania special election breakout star Conor Lamb has also embraced, but Scholten wasn’t as lucky.

Even though King’s rhetoric hasn’t put him in electoral danger in the past, Scholten made a bet that the constituents of the Fourth Congressional District were sick of the racism and the national notoriety King brought to their part of the state. Even though King still won, it appears that at least some people in the district are getting tired.