WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) arrived early at the “America First Dinner with President Donald J. Trump” on Tuesday.
It was a little after 3 p.m., and only a few dozen of the evening’s expected 700 conservatives and Trump supporters were inside the Ron Pearson Center in West Des Moines, all eager to sit down to a (minimum) $250-a-plate private fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party.
King, who was accompanied by his son and campaign manager, Jeff King, immediately greeted some familiar faces, all men in suits. The group chatted and laughed together.
Nearby, 64-year-old Jean Stanford stood with her husband. “I love Steve King,” said Stanford, who chairs the Mahaska County Republicans. “I can’t vote for him,” she said, noting that King isn’t her congressman, “but I wrote him a check for $2,700.”
Stanford added that she and her husband planned on writing King another $2,700 check for his reelection campaign.
Only five months ago, King condoned white supremacy in an interview with The New York Times. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” he said. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
In response, Republican leadership in the House punished King, taking the rare step of stripping him of his committee assignments. King’s longtime allies in Iowa also appeared to abandon him. The comments were “offensive and racist,” Sen. Joni Ernst said at the time. “I condemn it,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said, “I just hope he is doing some serious reflection on what is best for the people of the 4th District.”
On Tuesday, CNN, citing two GOP sources, reported that officials in the Trump administration rejected a request from the congressman to fly aboard Air Force One with the president to Iowa. CNN’s report didn’t elaborate on why the administration rejected the request. (Trump himself has never condemned King’s white nationalist remarks.)
But at the fundraiser in West Des Moines on Tuesday evening, King didn’t look like a political pariah. Rather, Iowa Republicans appeared to welcome the nine-term congressman with open arms, raising the prospect that King, whose political future very recently seemed in doubt, could be making a comeback.
The Iowa Republican Party invited King to Tuesday’s fundraiser, where Trump was the marquee speaker. “All Iowa elected GOP officials have been extended an invitation to this private, party fundraiser,” said state party spokesman Aaron Britt, when asked whether it was appropriate for a bigot like King to attend.
Stanford, the chair of the Mahaska County Republicans, told HuffPost she believed King’s comments to the Times were “misrepresented.”
“He did not say, in my opinion, what he was quoted as saying, and it bothers me that people believe it,” Stanford said, adding that she believed King “was set up.”
“I don’t know by who or for what reason.”
King has repeatedly made the dubious argument that he was misquoted by the Times, and that his comments were then deliberately misinterpreted by the mainstream media. It’s a claim that was echoed by many of the Republicans at Tuesdays’ fundraiser.
Iowa state Rep. Jon Jacobsen (R-Council Bluffs) said King has indicated “that he was not quoted correctly. And it had to do with even some pauses in the sentence structure and things like that.”
“I’m inclined,” Jacobsen told HuffPost, to give King “the benefit of the doubt.”
But giving King the benefit of the doubt doesn’t explain away the other time the congressman clearly condoned white nationalism, in a much less publicized October interview with an Iowa TV station. (The term “white nationalist,” King said, “is a derogatory term today. I wouldn’t have thought so maybe a year, or two, or three ago.”)
And even since being stripped of his committee assignments, King has still continued to express support for white nationalist figures and ideas.
In just the past few months the congressman has promoted an avowed white supremacist on Twitter; continued to use his official House.gov website to promote an explicitly white supremacist blog; shared a violent and transphobic meme on Facebook; told a town hall that all cultures do not “contribute equally” to “our civilization”; and disparaged victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — read: black people — as overly dependent on government aid.
“He’s in the spotlight so people are gonna find every word he says,” Travis Klinefelter, a 42-year-old nurse and Trump superfan from Dubuque, Iowa, told HuffPost while smoking a cigarette outside Tuesday’s fundraiser.
“I’m sure everybody has said something about someone that can be taken the wrong way, and with the camera on you, you’re under a microscope,” Klinefelter said.
This, too, is the Trumpian narrative King has pushed: that he is a brave truth-teller under siege by a fake news media intent on misrepresenting his statements in order to destroy him.
Earlier this year, King tweeted at House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, asking that he get his committee assignments back. “200 pro-family leaders wrote @GOPLeader McCarthy asking him ‘to do the right thing’ & reinstate my committees,” King wrote, referring to a petition signed by far-right figures like anti-Muslim extremist Frank Gaffney and, anti-LGBTQ activist James Dobson. “They know when the ‘outrageous misquote’ of a biased & liberal NYTimes takes free rein to ‘falsely brand’ Republicans, no conservative is safe.”
A recent report from Politico noted that King has also enlisted a small group of allies in the House — including Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) — to push House leadership to reinstate King to his committees.
But even if that effort is unsuccessful, there’s a real possibility that King will be reelected to a 10th term in Iowa.
Even though the congressman has raised a paltry $61,666 in campaign funds in the first three months of 2019 — compared to the $260,442 raised by his strongest primary opponent, state Sen. Randy Feenstra — some here in Iowa believe that King is still the favorite to win next summer’s primary.
J.D. Scholten was King’s Democratic opponent in last year’s election, losing to King by only 3 points in the deeply conservative 4th Congressional District in northwest Iowa. Scholten said that although it’s “very clear” that the GOP establishment in Iowa wants to “get rid of King,” that might not matter.
“King doesn’t need to fundraise,” Scholten said, explaining that a long-term incumbent like King has the kind of “name recognition through the whole district” that could see him through to victory.
King’s multiple primary opponents, Scholten argued, simply don’t have the “ground game that’s needed to beat him.”
When HuffPost started to approach King at Tuesday’s fundraiser — to ask the congressman, among other questions, how he feels about his chances in next year’s primary — a GOP official intervened and said reporters needed to stay in the designated press area.
Later, Jeff King, the congressman’s son and campaign manager, walked away from a HuffPost reporter attempting to interview him.
Bobby Penning, a 70-year-old corn farmer wearing a bolo tie, traveled two hours from Forsyth, Iowa, with his wife to see Trump speak at Tuesday night’s fundraiser. Among those sitting at Penning’s table: Congressman King.
During the dinner, Penning said, the congressman talked about the recent rainy weather in Iowa, about the corn and ethanol industries, and about how the congressman had developed a “thick skin to take all the bad things people say about him.”
“I think he’s a great guy,” Penning said of King, whom he voted for last year. “He believes in making America great, as Donald Trump does.”
Asked about King’s comments to the Times earlier this year, Penning replied that King “didn’t do anything wrong.”
Penning also said he wasn’t really aware of King’s past controversies — like when the congressman endorsed a white supremacist for mayor of Toronto, the three times he’s promoted neo-Nazis and white supremacists on Twitter, the time he said that you “can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” the time King warned of Mexican immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes” smuggling drugs across the border, and the time King talked to a Hungarian alt-right publication about the superiority of European culture.
“I’m from rural Iowa,” Penning said. “We don’t worry about those things.”