Even as some cringe, Rep. Steve King's support may endure

"Democrats are not going to win this district," Clay County GOP Chairman Will Jones said.

Posted: Aug 15, 2019 4:26 PM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Rep. Steve King's most recent insensitive remarks about rape are the kind that have doomed political candidates elsewhere, but some fellow Iowa Republicans say it's possible they actually could do more good than harm for the embattled congressman's re-election chances by reinforcing his credentials as a social conservative.

King, who faces steep competition just to win the GOP primary in his bid for a 10th term, made the comment Tuesday before a conservative group. He was attempting to justify his support for a ban on abortions without exceptions for rape and incest.

"What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?" King said. "Considering all the wars and all the rape and pillage that's taken place ... I know I can't certify that I'm not a part of a product of that."

The assertion was reminiscent of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comment in 2012 and Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's statement months later that a pregnancy due to rape was "something God intended."

While Akin and Mourdock struggled to move beyond those comments and lost races they'd been favored to win, it's unclear whether King will pay a price considering many in his conservative district support his position on abortion, even as they might cringe at how he worded it.

King also could benefit from the simple fact that since he was first elected in 2002, he has made so many comments prompting outrage on topics ranging from immigration to race that one more controversial statement may not carry as much weight.

Tuesday's justification of an abortion ban came about eight months after King was rebuked by the House and stripped of his committee assignments after being quoted by the New York Times questioning why "white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization" language was offensive.

Shane Vander Hart, an Iowa political consultant and conservative writer, said King has plenty of problems as he faces a contested primary with little campaign money. But Vander Hart notes Republicans hold a 70,000-voter registration edge in the districts, and many of those people — including his top rival for the nomination — agree with King on most issues, including that abortion should be illegal in all cases.

"This is not some silver bullet that's going to kill his campaign," Vander Hart said. "The overall principle of what he's saying, that's what pro-lifers believe."

Craig Williams, the Republican Party chairman in Carroll County, said support for King is strong and many Republicans think the congressman's views aren't fairly portrayed by the media.

"People in the 4th District like the fact that the congressman doesn't mince words very often," Williams said. "And he probably says things that are unfortunate from time to time, but who doesn't? Ask Joe Biden supporters about that."

David Rowley, the GOP chairman in Dickenson County, said King has built up a lot of good will over the years in the conservative county, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than a 2-to-1 ratio. Most Republicans in the region oppose abortion rights, and many will question whether the media took King's comments out of context, Rowley said.

"There's a lot of strong support for Congressman King generally among Republicans within the 4th District, but it is a concern," Rowley said.

Nationally, an AP-NORC poll conducted in May found that 70% of Republicans believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, though a much smaller 19% think it should be illegal in all cases.

As he seeks re-election, King could be at greatest risk in the primary, where he faces at least three candidates, including a well-funded state senator. That senator, Randy Feenstra, shares King's anti-abortion views but has argued King doesn't effectively represent the district because of his history of controversial comments.

Feenstra has noted that King narrowly beat Democrat J.D. Scholten, a former minor league baseball player, in the 2018 election despite the GOP's large registration edge.

After King's comments Tuesday, Feenstra released a statement criticizing his "bizarre comments" and adding, "We can't afford to hand the 4th District to Nancy Pelosi and her allies in Congress. President Trump needs defenders in Congress, not distractions."

Scholten recently announced he'd again run to represent the district, and within hours of King's comments Tuesday had sent out emails spotlighting the issue and seeking campaign contributions.

Despite the criticism King faces from other Republicans seeking the nomination, he could benefit from the vote being split four ways, increasing the chance his most avid supporters will outnumber those backing the other candidates.

And if King wins the nomination, those who tire of his comments will ultimately support the Republican, said Clay County GOP Chairman Will Jones, even as he expressed exasperation at the congressman's habit of wading into controversy.

"Democrats are not going to win this district," he said.

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