Fruits of Polarization

Charles Pierce looks at the latest outrageous utterance by U.S. Rep. Steve King, and just can’t take it any more:

Really, Iowans, if you do nothing else, please force the Emperor of All Morons to absent himself from the national scene. Because no one should be allowed to say something this stupid…and still lead in the polls. I mean, Jesus, Iowans, have some pride.

It’s not “Iowans” who will determine King’s fate, of course: it’s whoever shows up to vote in the 4th congressional district of Iowa, anchored in the intensely conservative (and Christian Right-dominated) region of northwest Iowa. The district was carried by McCain in 2008, and carried heavily by George W. Bush in 2004. Registered Republicans currently outnumber registered Democrats by a margin of 51,000. And as you might have heard, partisan polarization has reduced crossover voting and/or split ballots rather dramatically. As you can read at the fine Iowa-based blog Bleeding Heartland, King has had active help from Gov. Terry Branstad, has appeared jointly with Mitt Romney, and had Chris Christie come in to do a fundraiser for him. And precisely because he is, well, a crazy person, he has a national fundraising base, just like his very close friend Michele Bachmann.

So the surprising thing isn’t that Steve King is ahead according to recent polls: it’s that he’s in a tough, close race with Christie Vilsack (wife of former governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and a political force in her own right), who’s managed to put together her own national fundraising base and stay competitive with the incumbent despite early expectations that she had no chance. To win, she will have to win an overwhelming margin among the district’s independents (many of whom, of course, are functionally Republicans), and in that respect running against a crazy person is helpful. But the U.S. House of Representatives harbors a lot of crazy people for the unfortunate reason that relatively few voters (particularly in a national battleground state like Iowa) focus on House races (and you can be sure that King’s ads are designed to make him look like a reasonable fellow to low-information voters), and are willing to split tickets. Without a national wave, it’s tough to generate a lot of party turnover in House races.

Maybe King will lose on November 6, and maybe he will even be joined in retirement by Bachmann. But at a time when so very much hangs in the balance politically, unless you are actually an Iowan or a Minnesotan, you may need to pay extra attention–along with me and Charles Pierce–to notice what happens at the district level in the House.

UPDATE: As commenter KH notes, Steve King does indeed currently represent the 5th district of Iowa. But redistricting eliminated the 5th, and King chose to run in the 4th, currently represented by Republican Tom Latham, who chose to run in the 3d, currently represented by Democrat Leonard Boswell. Redistricting musical chairs at their finest!

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.