HAMPTON, Iowa— Rep. Steve King is keeping a low profile.
Engulfed in controversy for his past support of white supremacist groups and leaders in light of Saturday’s massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the Iowa Republican is riding out the closing days of a re-election campaign whose success is suddenly in question.
King has no campaign events scheduled and his staff has stopped responding to inquiries. His public appearances have been limited to friendly territory, such as the Crawford County Republican Party fundraiser Sunday.
Democrats are already hoping to flip two of Iowa’s four congressional seats, and the turmoil surrounding King has them thinking they could take his seat as well. It’s a tough task in a district that President Donald Trump won by 27 percentage points. But even some Republicans acknowledge King is in for a tough challenge from Democratic challenger J.D. Scholten.
“This is the strongest competition he’s ever faced,” said Gwen Ecklund, a former GOP chairwoman in Crawford County, one of 39 counties in the vastly agricultural district that stretches from most of the Minnesota border west to the Missouri River. “But I think the stronghold of his support remains intact.”
That premise has been challenged in recent days, as King has come under fire from House GOP leadership for tweets he’s posted endorsing a white nationalist candidate for Toronto mayor, and praising a nationalist party in Austria with Nazi ties.
The comments were the latest in a long line from the 69-year-old congressman lamenting the rise of minorities as a threat to white Americans, along with anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic comments over the years.
Not until Tuesday, in the days after the Pittsburgh shooting, did National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers decry King’s comments. That day, longtime King financial backers Land O’Lakes, a Minnesota-based food company, and its subsidiary Purina Pet Care, both with plants in King’s district, withdrew their support from King, as did the microprocessor company Intel.
In Iowa, however, Republicans have been silent.
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who named King her campaign chairman a year ago, said nothing amid calls from Democrats for her to disassociate herself from the congressman.
King’s son, Jeff, who is managing the congressman’s campaign, could not be reached for comment, despite several attempts.
Instead, King has spent the past few days stopping in at county GOP events and tweeting. He unapologetically blamed the media Tuesday for the turmoil. “These attacks are orchestrated by the nasty, desperate and dishonest fake news,” he wrote, borrowing from Trump’s script.
As King has hunkered down, the 38-year-old Scholten has only charged ahead.
The former minor-league pitcher and paralegal from Sioux City was rumbling across northern Iowa Wednesday in a Winnebago RV emblazoned with his name. He has put more than 25,000 miles on the vehicle since last summer. He was stopping in at coffee shops along Highway 3, making his fourth and fifth visits to the district’s counties.
“With this bump, for lack of a better term, I’m getting more confident every day. We’ve been able to capitalize on this momentum,” Scholten said of the King controversy as he walked through tiny Hampton en route to Rustic Brew Cafe. “But this has been 15 to 16 months in the making.”
As of this month, King had raised roughly $737,000, less than half of Scholten’s haul, which has received renewed backing from rising national Democratic figures such as California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is weighing a 2020 bid for president.
Scholten has spent $1.3 million, more than twice that of King, and has been running radio and television ads for months boosting his name in a district where King is well known.
Although King’s favorability in the district has dipped since his 2016 re-election, Republicans still outnumber Democrats in the district by more than 20,000 registered voters.
Scholten has netted former Republicans, including former state Sen. David Johnson, who left the GOP in 2016 after Trump won the party’s presidential nomination.
However, early voting tallies so far show Republicans have outpaced Democrats in returning ballot requests by more than 10,000.
Music teacher Randi Heisler, a Democrat, said after meeting Scholten in the cafe that she’d converted her Republican husband to support Scholten. But she fears that may not be enough.
“Are enough people fed up and ready to vote with their hearts and minds, above the party?” she said. “I don’t know.”
By THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press