CLEAR LAKE, United States (AFP) — Amid heightened tensions over US nativism, deeply conservative northwest Iowa finds itself mulling whether to re-elect a firebrand lawmaker accused of espousing white nationalist ideology.
Republican Steve King represents Iowa’s fourth congressional district, a largely rural area that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016.
The anti-immigrant King is a fierce Trump supporter, and to a large degree foreshadowed the rise of Trump and his brand of political nationalism.
But the congressman’s history of racist comments has made him a pariah in Washington, where Republican leaders have stripped him of his committee assignments.
Democrats warn that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about minority lawmakers has fanned the flames of division, especially after last weekend’s back-to-back mass shootings that killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
Some say his words have gone so far as to normalize white nationalism and allow for expressions of an even uglier ideology — white supremacy — advocated by King.
Voters in northwestern Iowa, where King is expected to run for a tenth term, tell a different story.
“Steve King has stood up for everything that we Iowans believe in. He’s gotten a bad rap by people saying he’s racist,” Wally Hamann, a retiree and part-time antique dealer in Sioux City, told AFP.
“He’s been stabbed in the back, just like our president, from his own Republicans.”
At 71, Hamann is a burly, bearded driver of a pickup truck that sports a “Steve King for Congress” koozie on the dashboard and an “America, Love it or Leave” decal on the rear window.
King, he said, is determined to halt unauthorized immigration.
“When you’re country is being invaded, you stop it with military power, and we’re not doing that,” Hamann warned.
King repeatedly has caused uproars over his unfiltered remarks.
“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King asked the New York Times in January.
In 2018 King spoke the “Great Replacement” — a white supremacist conspiracy theory — to an Austrian publication.
Charlie MacNider, a retiree in the small town of Clear Lake who erected a Trump 2020 sign on his front gate, said he “reluctantly” supports King.
“He says stupid things (and) shares with the president a tendency to say things that don’t come out correctly,” MacNider acknowledged.
But he refused to accept that Trump’s or King’s rhetoric is fueling white nationalism.
“And nationalist feelings are not necessarily a bad thing,” he said.
District 4 is wide-open farmland, with few major urban centers and a demographic even whiter than the already overwhelmingly white state of Iowa.
It’s usually a safe seat for the Republican who runs for Congress, especially an incumbent, said Professor Tim Hagle of the University of Iowa.
King’s controversy may reach a breaking point, Hagle added, but he stressed that Trump’s and King’s rhetoric was being viewed differently across the political spectrum.
“Democrats have a pretty clear view (that the rhetoric is racist), while Republicans have a different perspective,” said Hagle.
With Iowa the first in the nation to vote in the presidential nominations process, the state is under a bright political spotlight.
On Friday night all eyes were on District 4, as 20 Democratic presidential candidates including frontrunner Joe Biden piled into Clear Lake for a Democratic dinner.
As each took the stage to make their case, their campaign volunteers put on fierce and vocal displays of dancing and cheering for hours outside the venue, half a block from MacNider’s Trump sign.
King appears to be under threat, perhaps as never before.
Last year Democrat JD Scholten came within three points of defeating him, in a district where Republican voters heavily outweigh Democrats. He’s challenging King again in 2020.
“Last time we hoped to win. This time we expect to win,” Scholten, 39, said.
“We have 16 months to change those minds.”
Before facing Scholten, King needs to survive a primary featuring three fellow Republicans including Jeremy Taylor, supervisor of Woodbury County.
Taylor, 41, said he does not believe King is openly racist, but that he has been “unguarded” on how he speaks about race and culture.
“I think that there are times that Steve King has not been careful, and has committed unforced errors, and by doing so that’s hurt the conservative cause,” Taylor said.
Some Trump supporters quietly acknowledge concern about King and the president’s racial rhetoric.
One woman who voted for Trump in 2016, who did not want to be identified discussing sensitive political issues, expressed worry that Trump’s ugly tweets may indeed give license to racist behavior or language.
“Sometimes it’s guilt by association,” she said.