Why Steve King is Powerful

The only thing more predictable than the quadrennial thumb-suckers about the Mood of Iowa heading towards a competitive presidential nominating contest are the quadrennial complaints about the Iowa Caucuses. What makes the complaint by John McCain’s former alter ego Mark Salter at RealClearPolitics today interesting if ultimately disposable is that he’s not arguing that lily-white cornfed Iowans are unrepresentative of the country or shrewd shakedown artists or too greedy of their prerogatives, but instead that the Caucuses misrepresent Iowa itself (he’s from the state himself). And he particularly thinks a process that elevates someone like Steve King into a powerful position is a grievous crime against Iowa Nice:

I met few people if any like King among the many Iowans I knew in the quarter century I lived there. I think to a very large majority of Iowans, King, and not the objects of his abuse, is the alien.

It’s one thing to oppose legalizing the status of people who have entered the country illegally. It’s quite another to harbor a deep-seated, personal antipathy for people who were born into misfortune and are only trying to give their kids a better life. That is as un-Iowan as it gets. Yet paying respectful attention to Steve King types is what most Republican candidates believe is required to win the caucus.

Look, I am a big fan of Iowans. A friend of mine has gone so far as to dub me an “honorary Iowan” for my close attention to Iowa politics and enthusiasm for traditions like the State Fair. But sorry: Steve King is not being imposed on Iowa by some alien force. He’s been elected to Congress seven times, with his closest race being an eight-point win in 2012 over an exceptionally well-financed and well-regarded opponent, former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack. He represents a fourth of the state. And while yes, he’s anathema to most Democrats and many independents, among Iowa Republicans he walks very tall, and would if the Caucuses did not exist. Had he chosen to run for the Senate last year, he would have been given the GOP nomination by acclamation, and we might never have gotten to know Joni Ernst (yes, King could have lost the general election, but we’re talking about Republicans here).

Beyond that, the aspects of the Caucuses that give people like King disproportionate power nationally are not some sort of accident. It’s the labor-intensive nature of that contest that draws in the money and time of campaigns (not just in presidential years, but in midterms when they are expected to support state and local candidates in Iowa with money and staff and expertise). A mere primary would not do so. If, as Salter gently suggests, Iowa Republicans are misrepresenting themselves through the abattoir of the Caucuses, then it’s something they have chosen to do.

Yes, as Jim Newell argues at Salon, it’s unfortunate for the rest of us that King is from the First-in-the-Nation-Caucus state, because otherwise “[h]e would be a Tim Huelskamp, a highway tourist trap that’s not worth the lost driving time.” But while few would tout him as an example of Iowa Nice, he is an example of Iowa Conservatism in all its feral glory. We, including Salter, just have to live with it.

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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.