Disavowed by the National Republican Congressional Committee and abandoned by several of his corporate donors for racist rhetoric and ties to far right extremists, embattled Iowa Rep. Steve King seemed to be grasping for support last week as he struggled to get his reelection campaign on track ahead of Tuesday’s election.
On Twitter Wednesday, King shared tweets of support from Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert and Ralph Norman, a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives from South Carolina. In an interview with Bloomberg News, King said he’d also received a supportive call from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. In response to questions from reporters, Cruz called King’s rhetoric “disappointing” but declined to condemn the congressman, a key backer of Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid. Cruz’s campaign spokeswoman told Bloomberg that the call to King was “personal” and that “Sen. Cruz told him the same thing he said to reporters.”
After running a bare-bones campaign, King participated in a candidate forum in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday that went off the rails when he lashed out at a member of the public who asked whether King shared the same ideology as the man charged with killing 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last weekend.
With the election just three days away, the person King might most want to hear from is President Trump, who won the congressman’s deeply conservative district in 2016 by 27 points.
Trump has been criss-crossing the country in the final stretch of the campaign, speaking in Montana and Florida on Saturday alone, and using his Twitter feed to blast out endorsements for GOP candidates in a number of races to his 55.6 million followers.
Yet while the president has made clear his determination to head off a “blue wave” of Democrats in Congress, Trump appears to be making no effort on behalf of King, who is in a tight race to retain the House seat he’s held since 2003 to a well-funded, first-time Democratic contender.
A number of theories have been floated for Trump’s reticence, but a former campaign official with knowledge of the president’s thinking believes his political advisers “highlighted to the president the dangers of getting behind someone like Steve King, who is a well-known white supremacist.”
King became more well known as a white supremacist in the last couple of weeks as reports surfaced of his meeting earlier this year with members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, which was founded by a former Nazi SS officer. In the wake of the synagogue massacre, many Republicans rushed to distance themselves from him.
But even before then, Trump had been keeping King — who is known for an anti-immigrant stance that is if anything even stronger than the president’s own — “at an arm’s length,” according to the Trump campaign official.
One of the only times the president mentioned King was at a rally in Council Bluffs in early October, when Trump praised him along with other candidates in Iowa and Nebraska.
“I wish he could get a little bit more conservative,” Trump joked in his shout-out to King, who famously has a confederate flag displayed on his desk.
“Can you believe this guy?” he continued. “He may be the world’s most conservative human being. Thank you, Steve. And I supported him long before I became a politician.”
Trump had supported King as far back as 2014, before his own entry into national politics. But King had not returned the favor; in the 2016 campaign he backed Cruz, describing him as “the constitutional conservative that can restore the soul of America.” With King’s support, Cruz beat Trump in the 2016 Iowa caucus, almost derailing Trump at the very start of the primaries.
The former Trump campaign official told Yahoo News that while the president and King have “never been close,” King’s support for Cruz in Iowa is what “helped sear that relationship.”
Since Trump entered the White House, the former official asserted that, “other than the issue of immigration, [King] has never really been helpful to the president.”
King was extremely critical of Trump’s negotiations with Democrats last fall on a possible deal to protect young immigrants under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA, program.
“A reelect in 2020 would be very difficult for the president if amnesty goes with DACA and if a wall is not at least under robust construction by then,” King warned on CNN following a Twitter screed in which the congressman declared that, if reports of the DACA deal were true, Trump’s “base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible.”
Since the beginning of this year, however, with his campaign for a ninth congressional term on the horizon, King has made a consistent effort to show his support for the president. He defended Trump for remarks in which he reportedly referred to African and Caribbean nations as “shit-hole” countries, and even joined a group of House Republicans in nominating Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize.
At the Iowa state GOP Convention in June, King and his fellow Iowa Republicans pledged their allegiance to the president, despite serious concerns about his trade war with China wreaking havoc on Iowa farmers and the state’s economy as a whole.
“Give him time. Give him room,” King told convention-goers, reportedly relaying to the crowd the same assurance he’d received from top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow. “We’re riding a tiger. I think it’s a little dangerous to try to get off.”
In recent months leading up to the election, King has eagerly embraced Trump’s efforts to reenergize his supporters through anti-immigrant fear-mongering, from blaming Democrats for the slaying of a University of Iowa student, allegedly by an undocumented Mexican immigrant, to promoting conspiracy theories about caravans of Central American migrants traveling north through Mexico. When Trump expressed his legally dubious desire to do away birthright citizenship by executive order, King, who has unsuccessfully sought to end birthright citizenship through legislation every year since 2011, seized the opportunity to remind people that he is “is the recognized leader in Congress on this effort.”
“I am very happy that my legislation will soon be adopted by the White House as national policy,” King said in a statement. King went even further in an interview with Radio Iowa Friday, saying he “stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Donald Trump, who by the way borrowed my immigration policy when he came to Iowa to run for president.”
“We sat at his desk in the Oval Office just a couple of weeks ago and agreed how we were going to move them,” King said.
Trump has offered no indication that King had any involvement or influence on his most recent policy proposals.
“He’s more of a publicity hound,” Trump’s former campaign official said of King. “I think the president sees that and he doesn’t want people getting in his universe trying to use him to get publicity.” He said that Trump has also been unimpressed by King’s lackadaisical campaign, in which he ran no television ads until last week, made few public appearances and refused to debate his opponent.
“Why should the president use his political capital to help somebody who’s not doing a campaign himself?” he asked.
On Thursday, King purchased his first block of television airtime for this election cycle. It didn’t take long after his first ad ran on Friday afternoon for observers to notice that the 30-second spot had been recycled from King’s 2014 campaign.
#IA04 Rep. Steve King (R) finally went up on the airwaves at 1:18pm today, 2.5 weeks after his opponent. The ad looked familiar to me…and yup, it's a recycled ad from his *2014* race. https://t.co/VkRF8zBspG https://t.co/6qHqYiAok1
— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) November 2, 2018
But the former campaign official believes the controversy over King’s ties to far right extremists — which cost the congressman the support of the National Republican Campaign Committee — is what made the president leery.
“The media has tried to pin the president on being sympathetic to white supremacists, and it’s just far from the truth,” said the former Trump campaign official. “But one way he could get painted as sympathetic is by going all in for Congressman King, and he won’t. And he hasn’t yet.”
A White House spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment. John Kennedy, King’s communications director, disputed the notion that the congressman and Trump are anything other than “close allies.”
“Their friendship and mutual respect is apparent to anyone who witnessed the President deliver his remarks about the Congressman in Council Bluffs,” Kennedy told Yahoo News via email. Kennedy insisted that King and Trump “work well together, as evidenced by the President’s recent decision to allow the year round sale of ethanol (E-15), an item that Congressman King discussed with the President” during a recent “Oval Office meeting that was so positive and productive that it went on for seventy-five minutes instead of the half-hour that had been initially allotted.”
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the nonpartisan congressional election ratings site Sabato’s Crystal Ball, acknowledged that “support from the president might be helpful” in King’s race, as “it’s a very Republican seat where Trump’s approval is likely positive,” but he could not speculate on the president’s thinking.
“It may be that King has become radioactive even for Trump, although nothing would surprise me at this point,” he said, adding that “all it takes is a tweet, and the election is not here yet.”
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