But there is more to King’s tells-it-like-it-is appeal. Northwestern Iowa is changing. Financially, the farm community has struggled over the past few years with commodity prices for corn and beans often falling below the cost of production. That’s helping to shrink the rural population, especially among younger people, who are increasingly looking to bigger cities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids for better job opportunities. According to the U.S. Census, King’s home county of Crawford now has a population of about 17,000 people—about 4,000 fewer than it had in 1900.
The area had been nearly all white for generations, but that, too, has been slowly changing as more Hispanic immigrants have arrived. In 2000, the county was about 93 percent white. That’s now dropped to 82 percent, with Hispanics accounting for nearly all of the change. Eager to make a living for themselves, many newcomers have been willing to take lower-paying jobs in agriculture, manufacturing and meat-packing. And not everyone is comfortable with the changing look of schools, grocery stores and churches in town.
“There are some ‘Steve Kings’ out there,” says immigration attorney Jason Finch, who practices in Denison and nearby Storm Lake, two communities with rising immigrant populations. And he doesn’t mean it as a compliment. “I had a county attorney tell me it was his life’s mission to deport as many immigrants as he could.”
Still, Finch reckons that anti-immigrant sentiment is held by a shrinking majority in the region, and where it exists, he says, it tends to be rooted more in ignorance than racism. “The younger generation handles it a lot better than the older generation does,” Finch says.
Politically, much of King’s district is deeply conservative, with registered Republicans (nearly 200,000 of them) easily outnumbering registered Democrats (fewer than 125,000). That makes it hard for challengers to take on King, no matter how many controversial assertions he makes.
In 2012, King was tested by a genuinely tough reelection fight. His opponent was Christie Vilsack, the spouse of a popular former Democratic governor, Tom Vilsack, who would later become U.S. secretary of agriculture. King’s district had been redrawn, and was less Republican as a result. But King ended up getting a boost from Branstad, who had grown concerned with the dynamics of the race and personally sent staff to help the campaign. King won by 8 points.
The next year, as Congress debated comprehensive immigration reform, King took a stand as one of the most conservative—and controversial—voices speaking out against illegal immigration. “For every one who’s a valedictorian,” he told Newsmax, referring to young undocumented immigrants crossing the border, “there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds. And they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’ve been hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” Iowa Republicans cringed at the words, but no prominent leader strongly denounced King at the time.
His margin of victory on election night in 2014? It was 23 points—far higher than his margin against Vilsack two years before, but just about par for the course for King. In fact, King has long crushed his competition. With the exception of 2012, he has won by at least 21 percentage points in each of his reelection bids; in 2010, the margin was 34 points.
In other words, King is in one of the safest districts in the country for the GOP, and even attempts to primary him go down in flames.
Nick Ryan understands why. Last year, Ryan, one of the state’s most well-known Republican operatives and donors, helped to orchestrate the first primary challenge King has faced since winning his seat in 2002. Ryan’s chosen candidate, State Senator Rick Bertrand, lost by 30 percentage points.
Steve King represents the people who keep voting for him. They are no different from him, not enough to motivate them to vote for someone else. Steve King's racism isn't the core problem. The fact that his racism is perfectly acceptable to tens of thousands of Iowa voters every two years is. Until that changes, he'll keep his job.
Maybe Trump's proposed 30% cuts to the USDA will do it. Who knows. But we need to stop making excuses for the people who keep voting in racists and expecting them to stop being that way.