ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa—As Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, continues to mull a run for U.S. Senate in 2014, Republicans in his Fourth Congressional District seem skittish about the domino effect of the bid. More than 30 people attended the Lyon County GOP county central committee meeting Tuesday night, and talk of King’s political future buzzed around the room.
“Can’t he split himself in two?” said Jan Freerks, the newly elected secretary of the Lyon County GOP, which had the fourth largest margin of victory for Mitt Romney in 2012. The possibility of King running for Senate and losing “scares me,” she said.
Will-he-or-won’t-he speculation runs rampant as King flirts with a bid for higher office. So far, King has gamely welcomed the increased scrutiny, delivering a high-profile speech earlier this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference and consistently telling reporters that his odds of jumping into the race are “a little over 50-50.”
Sioux City Journal political reporter Bret Hayworth, who has covered King for more than a decade, launched the King Meter this month to gauge the likelihood of King entering the U.S. Senate race. As of Friday, Hayworth increased the meter to 67 percent from 62 percent.
While many liberal activists seem confident (overconfident, actually) that King will run (and lose to Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo), a Bleeding Heartland writer remains skeptical: “I don’t care how many times King insists that he is carefully analyzing the pros and cons of a U.S. Senate bid. He’s neither dumb enough nor brave enough to leave the safe confines of Iowa’s fourth Congressional district.” wrote desmoinesdem.
Always a shrewd politician, King commissioned a statewide poll to test his appeal east of Interstate 35. The 63-year-old also scheduled two Eastern Iowa appearances in as many months: a Jones County GOP event April 6 and a speaking slot at the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Dinner with Rand Paul in Cedar Rapids on May 10.
Even in red hot Lyon County, where Republicans outnumber Democrats and Independents combined by more than a 2-to-1 margin, every activist interviewed by TheIowaRepublican.com seemed worried about King’s Senate chances.
“I’d like to see Steve King in the Senate,” said George Schneidermann, a friend of King and the owner of Frontier Bank in Rock Rapids, where the committee regularly meets. “It’s a pretty tough calculation for him. He’s in a safe seat; he proved that last cycle. He would win the Senate primary, but the general election would be tough. His pathway to the U.S. Senate is high-risk, low-reward.”
Sam Clovis, a Sioux City talk radio host and professor, recently concluded a six-part lecture series on the constitution for hundreds of Northwest Iowa conservative activists. He said that about one third of people he talked with wanted King to run for Senate while the rest preferred that he stay in the House to continue fighting for his principles.
As activists anxiously await a decision from King, many relish his bold stances on issues dear to conservatives but worry that his brash style would not play well in moderate-heavy, urban areas.
“If he’s running for Senate, he has my vote,” said Roger Oliver, an 80-year-old GOP activist from Rock Rapids. “But I don’t know. I don’t think he can get the Eastern part of Iowa.”
King basks in his status as a lightening rod for liberal critics, and many Republicans worry that such exchanges could cause problems for King outside of the heavily Republican Fourth Congressional District, where he comfortably dispatched Christie Vilsack in 2012.
“King has an ambition to get more words into the Congressional Record than anyone in history,” Schneidermann said, noting that fodder for anti-King attack ads seems infinite.
Meanwhile, if King decides to run for Senate, his decision would set off a scramble to replace the outspoken conservative in Congress. Potential GOP candidates include the president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce Chris McGowan, state Sen. Randy Feenstra of Hull, state Sen. Rick Bertrand of Sioux City, state Rep. Pat Grassley of New Hartford, state Rep. Tom Shaw of Laurens and director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals Rod Roberts, a former state Rep. from Carroll.
“There’s not an obvious person waiting in the wings,” said Mark Lundberg, the chairman of the Sioux County GOP. “It would be wide open. That would energize folks. My belief is: in primaries, the more the merrier. Especially in Northwest Iowa, that’s the only fun we get.”
Other Republicans warned that a contentious contest could provide a window of opportunity for a Democrat to slide into the seat.
Clovis, the host of a morning KSCJ 1630 AM program, called an open seat in the Fourth Congressional District a “golden opportunity” for Democrats. Last cycle President Obama only won 6 of the 39 counties in the Fourth District—Webster, Boone, Story, Cerro Gordo, Floyd and Chickasaw. Nonetheless, a more business-friendly, rural Democrat might make inroads.
“We’d be more vulnerable out here than we’ve ever been without Steve King,” Clovis said. “This district is different. It’s deep red near the Missouri River but fades the more East you go,” he said. “This district is not as homogeneous as the old Fifth District.”
Top issues on Republicans’ minds include repealing Obamacare, reducing federal spending and protecting Iowans’ Second Amendment rights, he said.
“It’s not really the gun issue, the health care issue or the budget,” Clovis said. “It’s about the reach of the federal government. Most people from this part of the country, regardless of what side of the aisle they sit on, are liberty-loving people.”
Meanwhile, Iowa’s two representatives on the Republican National Committee spoke to Lyon County Republicans about the RNC’s recently-released Growth & Opportunity Project and took questions from the crowd.
Tamara Scott called the RNC’s recommendation for regional primaries a “dangerous, dumb idea.”
“It would really remove the grassroots at the core,” she said. “The [Iowa] Caucuses are where you talk to your neighbors about issues.”
Scott and Steve Scheffler, who participated in an RNC conference call earlier that day, both blasted the party’s recent 2012 post-mortem and discussed issue resolutions they plan to advance at the next meeting. Scheffler, the president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, said that he’s working to tweak various RNC rules that provide quotas for women and U.S. territory influence.
“I’m all for inclusion,” he said, but knocked gender mandates (with a humorous touch). “I’ve been married for 43 years, so, I love women.”
Scheffler said he’s pushing to downsize the sway of delegates from six U.S. territories, all of which have three RNC members and state-sized slates of delegates to the GOP conventions. He blamed the territory block for voting for past GOP chairman Michael Steele, whose tenure at the helm seemed constantly marred by gaffes and fundraising woes, and said that non-states with low populations should not have the same representation as states.
Scheffler praised the recent filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on civil liberties issues involving drones, in comments pressing the party to continue welcoming the liberty movement into the fold. However, Scheffler also criticized the excesses of Paul enthusiasts.
“The liberty movement gave us a jostle the last time around,” Scheffler said, criticizing the RNC vote for ten-Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, by the slate of Iowa GOP delegates at the RNC Convention in Tampa last year. “My concern is that they didn’t vote for the winner in Iowa. They didn’t respect the process. And the people of Iowa felt cheated.”
Nonetheless, Scheffler said that it’s time for Republicans to move on and look beyond factional labels. While the Lyon County meeting brimmed with “peace, unity and harmony,” as he said, other areas of Iowa continue to weather divisive squabbling among competing camps.
“We’re about to elect a U.S. Senator to replace Tom Harkin,” he said. “If we’re not united, we’re going to lose again.”
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