Iowa Primary Voters Deciding King's Fate, Ernst's Challenger

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Republicans in northwest Iowa are deciding Tuesday whether they've had enough of conservative lightning rod Steve King, after tolerating the congressman's incendiary comments about immigrants and white supremacy for nearly two decades.

King, who was stripped of his committee assignments in 2018 for comments about white nationalism, faces four challengers in the GOP primary. One of them, state Sen. Randy Feenstra, has attracted support from key conservative groups as well as former King supporters.

If King loses Tuesday, establishment Republicans suggest the state's lone GOP-held U.S. House seat would likely remain in the party's hands, while a King primary victory could jeopardize the seat by setting up a rematch with the Democrat who came within 2 percentage points of beating him two years ago.

The Iowa primary also will determine a challenger for freshman Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who has seen her approval numbers dip in recent months. Four Democrats are seeking the job.

King's fate has become the focus of what otherwise would be a sleepy Iowa primary.

“There is a little bit of concern that he’s become tone deaf to some of these issues,” longtime King supporter Ann Trimble Ray said, referring to voters' concern that King has been marginalized in Congress, though she remains a believer of the congressman.

King has a number of factors working against him, including signs of high turnout. A spike in new voters registered as Republicans in the district are less likely to be longtime King supporters, who have never left the voter rolls.

King, who has aired no television ads, has been outspent by Feenstra and conservative groups backing him. Feenstra has been endorsed by abortion rights opposition group National Right to Life, once a longtime King supporter, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobbying group.

Yet the crowded field, which includes a former county supervisor and two businessmen, could benefit King by siphoning supporting from Feenstra. To avoid a nominating convention, a winning primary candidate must receive at least 35 percent of the vote.

House Republicans pulled their support for King in 2018 after reports of overtures to right-wing extremists in Europe. They would not be expected to come to King's aid this year should he win Tuesday.

More notable to some former King supporters, he was stripped of his membership on the House judiciary and agriculture committees last year after being quoted in The New York Times seeming to defend white nationalism.

Democrats on the other hand will be choosing from four relative unknowns to take on Ernst in what has has shaped up to be a more competitive Senate race than expected.

Ernst's job approval and overall favorable ratings have dropped in the past year as she has sought to balance support for President Donald Trump, who is popular with Republicans but far less so among others in the state.

Of the four seeking to challenge Ernst, Theresa Greenfield appears to have an edge, in part because of her compelling story of being widowed as a young mother and owing her rebound to Social Security and union benefits.

Perhaps most notably, the 55-year-old Greenfield has impressed with her fundraising, bringing in more than $7 million since entering the race last year. That's at least $5 million more than any of her Democratic opponents and reflects the endorsement of the Democrats' national Senate campaign arm.

And while Ernst has lost some of her footing, it's difficult to say how the Senate race proceeds in light of the continuing pandemic, the uncertain economy and now protests over over police treatment of African Americans, including in Iowa where Trump won by more than 9 percentage points in 2016.

“Anybody who can predict what the state of the economy will be, any sense of community people have, where the partisan tendencies go between now and November, it’s just really hard to say," said senior Ernst adviser David Kochel.