KIRON, Iowa -- It was never a sure thing that Steve King would win his first term in the U.S. House, let alone nine.
Some don't know or maybe forgot King finished in third place in a four-candidate Republican field for the June 2002 primary for an open seat in the then-Iowa 5th Congressional District. At that point, a nearly two-decades-long congressional career for King seemed far fetched.
However, by the end of that month, King, then a state senator, had made a series of excursions to directly talk to the Republicans who would settle the special nominating convention nominee, since none of the primary candidates exceeded the 35 percent threshold required by state law.
King reached enough of those grassroots Republicans to seize the nomination at the convention in Denison -- not far from his home in Kiron -- and the rest was history. And by history, that covers a career in two congressional districts in which King became beloved among fiscal and social conservatives, and also the object of scorn by progressives, with that being true not only in Iowa, but also nationally, as King's comments got wide media play.
With less than two weeks left in King's ninth term, the congressman and others looked back on his tenure, achievements and controversial statements.
Woodbury County Republican Party Chairwoman Suzan Stewart, who has known King throughout his 18 years in the House, clearly recalls the 2002 nominating convention. When people outside the state hear she's from Iowa, they quickly bring up King and ask whether she lives in his district, she said.
"I can't think of any other Iowan than maybe (actor) Ashton Kutcher or (musical composer) Meredith Willson that would prompt so much curiosity," she said.
As for King himself, he said he's never wavered from how he entered the House in 2003: "I am a full-spectrum constitutional Christian conservative." Those three 'C' words certainly rolled out of King's mouth again and again, and he contends his actions backed up his usage.
In a recent interview, King cited his prime achievements as the dredging of Storm Lake, the widening of U.S. Highway 20 from two to four lanes in western Iowa and, most recently, his support and modeling that paved the way for President Trump to erect miles of a wall on the southern U.S. border with Mexico. King also spoke proudly of his support for renewable energies growth in Iowa, plus his anti-abortion Heartbeat Protection Act, which had 174 sponsors and only died because his fellow Republican House leadership team blocked it, he said.
The latter outcome demonstrates how King at many times during his career knocked heads with Republican leaders. Some of that came after they distanced themselves from King for controversial statements, a relationship that strained to a breaking point when GOP leaders stripped him of all of his committee assignments for comments about white supremacy he made to the New York Times in January 2019.
King said a lot of things that were highly controversial, and, some contend, racist, a charge he always pushed back on. In 2013, King, referring to so-called Dreamers, undocumented children who came across the border with their parents or other relatives, "For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
This year alone, King repeatedly denounced the Black Lives Matter movement and spoke against the push by people in many states to take down a series of statues and memorials to Confederate soldiers and generals. Until a few years ago, King kept a small Confederate flag on his desk in his office in Washington.
"King leaves a timeline of controversial – and by many Iowans’ standards – noxious public remarks," said Bradley Best, a Buena Vista University political science professor who has followed King's career. "While unifying for his electoral base, King’s rhetorical style proved to be inconsistent with the Republican establishment’s highest priority, preserving the 4th District’s status as beyond the reach of even high-quality Democratic candidates."
King said though some people may take exception with things he's said, he asserts he never responded by disparaging them.
He points to a record of ably serving Iowans.
"We just kept taking on more and more responsibilities over 18 years. Our staff got better, and our network got better and stronger," King said.
That growing list of responsibilities grew bigger, he said, like a snowball being pushed and picking up more snow to get larger. That snowball equated to his House career, King said, where "it is harder to push, but you are better at it and maybe you're getting a little stronger."
"His staff was spread across the district, not just in Sioux City, and as far as I can tell, they were renowned for going the extra mile for constituents that had knotty problems," Stewart said.
King also cited his pride on how he approached the notion of working with fellow lawmakers, taking what he called a high road.
"I never flipped on a position and also I never did a quid-pro-quo. I've never cut a deal with anyone and said, 'I'll vote for your bad bill if you vote for my good bill.' None of that. So everything has been straight up, and I've dealt with people honestly," King said.
A former staffer this summer wrote King a letter, citing the time back to 1995, when King first ran for the Iowa Senate.
"He said I had operated at the level of exhaustion for the last 25 years. And I hadn't thought about that, it was just the pace that has been my life," King said, then chuckled in adding, "I wondered, where was he for the other 25 years I was running at the same pace?"
DECADES IN NORTHWEST IOWA
King, 71, typically describes being raised in Denison, Iowa, but he was born in Storm Lake and lived there until beginning kindergarten with his parents, Emmet and Mildred King. The family lived in tiny Goodell through the middle of his sixth-grade year.
After high school, he worked for a Denison construction firm, then moved to building terraces by driving a bulldozer through the summer 1975. King founded his own firm while living in Kiron, the tiny Crawford County town where he still lives.
It was while driving King Construction equipment that King began to question the functioning of the federal government. After being audited twice by the Internal Revenue Service, King seized the idea to abolish the federal income tax and all the attendant IRS structure that goes into enforcement.
Eventually, King was moved to run for the state Senate in 1996, challenging then-incumbent Republican Sen. Wayne Bennett. He cruised to victory in the primary that year and didn't lose another November election for state or federal office, until his defeat in the June primary at the hands of Republican state Sen. Randy Feenstra.
In his first five elections in the former 5th district, which included parts of Northwest and Southwest Iowa, King easily won re-election. Following redistricting in 2010, his district changed somewhat, as he lost most of his southwest Iowa counties and gained counties in North Central Iowa that stretched east nearly to Waterloo.
In 2012, King had the first true challenge of his congressional career, winning a tough race against former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack. In 2014, King defeated Democratic challenger Jim Mowrer, who brought in more money than King, who was never a prolific fundraiser.
In 2016 King withstood his first intra-party challenge as a member of Congress. State Sen. Rick Bertrand of Sioux City launched a challenge just months before the June primary, calling out King for being ineffective. King won that primary but it showed he was somewhat vulnerable, as Bertrand won 35 percent of the vote. In the 2018 general election, J.D. Scholten, a little known Democrat from Sioux City, nearly pulled an upset. That signaled the beginning of the end was coming for King, Best said.
"Though the January 2019 interview with the New York Times, and the subsequent loss of committee assignments, signaled King’s political decline, I strongly believe that his three-point win over Scholten in 2018 ended his career in Congress. For social conservatives in western Iowa, a narrow win too closely resembles a loss. Fourth District Republicans’ loyalties to a candidate end when they detect a Democratic part in ascendance," Best said.
In a January 2019 New York Times article on immigration, King was quoted as asking, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?"
The published remarks fueled a national backlash, that resulted in Republican House leaders stripping him of committee assignments, which he never regained. King has repeatedly insisted the Times reporter misquoted him, and also said he was the victim of a political hit orchestrated by people and groups.
FEENSTRA WIN ENDS ERA
Just as King's entry to the U.S. House was smoothed by a June event, his departure was sealed in June voting this year. The primary ultimately saw state Sen. Randy Feenstra, of Hull, and three other Republicans run for the seat.
As it became clear on primary night that Feenstra would win, Nick Ryan, who ran the Team Iowa PAC that delivered money to Republicans over the last decade, tweeted out, "Love watching these results...King is getting crushed... proud of you, Iowa!"
Feenstra's nearly 10-point primary win delivered a bracing blow to the long-term incumbent.
"You know, this is life. I know there were a good number of sympathy calls that came in," King said.
"...Steve King is doing just fine. And Bret, at no point was there a morgue atmosphere in our household. What you have to do is judge, are you satisfied with what you have done with the tools God gave you to work with? And if the answer to that is, yes or close to yes, then there is no lament, because it wasn't in my hands."
Best said King's chief accomplishment over 18 years is not a piece of legislation, but fitting well within the Republican direction in the 21st century, and even presaging the arrival of Trump, who shook up political norms and makes some wonder how the 2020s will look after King leaves the stage.
"The route to grasping early 21st century Iowa politics passes through King’s tenure in the House of Representatives... Steve King brought to the surface the full extent of conservatism in rural Iowa. Randy Feenstra is now the principal beneficiary of that enterprise, and Donald Trump’s overwhelming success among 4th district voters is inseparable, in my view, from the project King began in January of 2003," Best said.
"He will be remembered as a leader of conservative thought," Stewart added. "Having been around the 4th District for 40 years now and seen a lot of politicians come and go, Steve has always received the most applause and accolades from any gathering of grassroots Republicans."
King said thoughts on his career will soon be coming out in his book titled "Walking Through The Fire," which also reviews America's culture since the 1970s. He joked it could have a sub-title, "Coming Out The Other Side Slightly Singed."
He and wife Marilyn, a former teacher, have three grown sons who are married, with eight grandchildren ranging in age from 2 to 15.
"I certainly had the time to appreciate my family more," King said. "I missed out on a lot, a lot of family time, watching those kids grow up, those grandkids grow up. I've seen more of that, I saw a softball game, one of my granddaughters was in it. I got to see a football game with one of my grandsons in pads, and I got to see my granddaughter as a cheerleader, a high school cheerleader."
Assessing a question on whether he might someday become a cable TV commentator, King responded with a smile, "I don't think I'm good looking enough for TV."
Stewart said she's looking forward to King's next chapter.
"His goal was to make life better and easier for the regular people of his district," she said. "I don't think he ever deviated from those guiding principles."