On Election Day, before the votes were counted, a man named Ray neatly summed up what would come to be Steve King’s squeaker of a win in deep-red northwest Iowa.
Ray Beebe spent his entire career proudly serving as general counsel at Winnebago Industries, the good folks who build your motorhomes.
And, for decades, the 76-year-old viewed himself as a reliable small-town Iowa Republican, the sort of guy who entered the voting booth every two years eager to re-elect his incumbent Republican congressman.
Except this year, Ray has been writing a letter to the editor of his local paper nearly every week. The letters say Republican congressman Steve King is a bigot. The letters begged northwest Iowa to get rid of him.
“I just became more and more disgusted by it all,” Ray told me by phone from Forest City, Iowa, on Tuesday afternoon. He had just returned home from his Rotary Club meeting. Northwest Iowa was still voting.
“And I know a lot of us are. Many of us are disgusted! But I don’t know if that group is big enough. In my gut, I’m worried it isn’t.”
Ray’s gut was right.
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Steve King won re-election Tuesday, surviving after doing a bunch of things that made it more likely he would lose. King’s opponent, J.D. Scholten, out-hustled and out-raised the longtime Republican congressman, and then lost after doing many things that made it more likely he would win.
At the end of the evening, the scoreboard said King 50, Scholten 47. That’s incredibly close in a district where there are 190,000 registered Republicans and only 120,000 Democrats.
But in politics a win is a win, as Steve King pointed out himself during his election night victory party at a Sioux City hotel. And a loss is a loss, albeit one that shines some light on both King’s bad last few months and why he was able to withstand them.
“At this point the nature of that district is so Republican, or so very little Democratic, that (Scholten) had an incredibly uphill fight,” says Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist who has studied Iowa politics for three decades.
To understand just how uphill this fight was, let’s place King’s and Scholten’s last few months side by side.
King publicly endorsed a Toronto mayoral candidate who has flirted with neo-Nazis. He traveled to Europe on a trans-Atlantic flight paid for by a Holocaust memorial group, then took a side trip to meet with far-right Austrian politicians who harbor historic ties to the Nazi Party. He said so many things that inflamed outsiders and some of his own potential voters that listing them here would fill the rest of this column.
Disturbed by this merry-go-round of controversy, three high-profile corporate donors yanked their support. King was then publicly disavowed by the head of the National Republican Campaign Committee — publicly disavowed by the person supposed to be helping Steve King get re-elected in northwest Iowa.
King also raised precious little money for his re-election campaign. He didn’t put up a TV ad until four days before Election Day.
Scholten, a paralegal, spent the last 18 months criss-crossing the sprawling district in a beat-up Winnebago he named “Sioux City Sue.” He met people in every city and town along the way, in the process going from a complete unknown ex-University of Nebraska baseball pitcher to a northwest Iowa fixture.
He tried to shy away from national politics whenever possible — a good idea, since his party’s politics and northwest Iowa’s don’t always match. He tried to stake out moderate positions on gun rights. He talked a lot about the wants and needs of northwest Iowa.
He also raised an enormous sum of money for a guy driving around in a beat-up Winnebago. Scholten ran TV ads for weeks. He entered the race’s final weeks with a fastball’s worth of momentum.
And yet ... King 50 percent, Scholten 47.
[Read more: 2018 election news]
The first reason for this is the red wall — heck, red fortress with a red moat — that King enjoys in northwest Iowa. In our highly partisan times, it is no small feat to persuade a heavily Republican area to vote Democratic, Goldford says. This is a place where, in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 27 percentage points.
Just how hard is it to get someone to change their political stripes? Consider: On Tuesday night, two Republican House incumbents who may soon go to federal prison, and a Democratic Senate incumbent who recently barely escaped jail time, all ran for re-election. All three won. Steve King is many things, but he is not under federal indictment.
The second reason for 50-47 is that when J.D. Scholten went out in his beat-up Winnebago, many of the residents of northwest Iowa hadn’t sought out or heard from a real-life Democratic politician in years. Democrats largely abandoned districts like northwest Iowa in the 1990s, Goldford said, gradually becoming viewed as the party of the cities, of the coasts and of racial and ethnic minorities.
Scholten didn’t just have to get elected. He had to try to rebuild a bombed-out relationship brick by brick.
“They have to find a way to talk to voters in small towns and rural areas,” Goldford said of Democrats. “That’s their challenge. Their task.”
And the third reason, the Drake political scientist says, may be the simplest: A lot of northwest Iowans agree with Steve King’s views on abortion, taxes and trimming government programs. And many also agree with his views on Judeo-Christian heritage, ethnicity and immigration. They aren’t voting for Steve King in spite of his controversial comments. Some are voting for Steve King because of these views.
“Listen, elected officials can’t elect themselves,” Goldford says. “He doesn’t have some secret formula to sneak in (the House’s) back door. He’s there because the people in his district put him there.”
Which does ignore the fact that, on Tuesday, tens of thousands of northwest Iowa Republicans — people like Ray — did vote for a Democrat. They abandoned King in droves.
Until Tuesday, King’s closest-ever election in this 4th District was a relatively easy 8-point win in 2012 against Christie Vilsack — the well-known and well-funded former first lady of Iowa. In 2016, he won his congressional race by a margin of 61-38, walloping his Democratic challenger by 82,000 votes.
On Tuesday night, King barely won by 10,000 votes. After he prevailed, he took the stage at his victory party and told the crowd that the closeness of the race was due to “East Coast and West Coast multi-billionaire leftists.”
“Our hole card was you,” he told the small but passionate crowd, using a poker term. “You. You knew the truth all along. And you guarded my back. You guarded it at the coffee shops, you guarded it at the dinner table, you guarded it at church.”
Ray Beebe, the retired Winnebago exec, would certainly dispute the reasons for the closeness of King’s victory, but he doesn’t dispute the truth that King still has many defenders. He spent plenty of time talking to his Rotary Club and his coffee group. He argued with friends when he saw King signs in their yards, told them things King has said about Mexicans, Muslims, diversity.
“People get asked about his neo-Nazi connections and they say, ‘Oh, I dunno anything about that,’ ” Beebe told me. “Well, where you been lately? You spend your whole day inside a cornfield or what?”
Beebe’s gut told him it would be close. His gut told him that many Republicans feel the same way he does ... but not quite enough of them. And his instincts also tell him that none of this nuance about built-in Republican advantage or longtime Democratic decay mattered when non-Iowans glanced up at a TV screen Tuesday night and saw that Steve King had been re-elected to a ninth term.
“It raises the question: What do you think America is gonna think of Iowa?” Beebe asked me about a King re-election. “That’s a rhetorical question. They are gonna think we’re nitwits.”