In the most conservative pocket of Iowa, a nasty political battle is simmering between an Iraq War veteran and a rabble-rousing congressman famous for his love-him-or-hate-him persona.

The U.S. House race between Democrat Jim Mowrer, 28, and incumbent Republican Rep. Steve King, 65, was relatively quiet over the spring and summer. But now, with Election Day less than a month away, the campaign for the 4th District seat in northwest Iowa has grown fierce.

Mowrer last week accused King’s campaign of having a “meltdown” over a TV attack ad. King’s campaign called Mowrer a “liberal shill for an unpopular Democrat establishment.”

King threatened to back out of an Oct. 23 debate unless the Mowrer campaign apologized and retracted its ad, which claims King voted in 2009 to raise his own pay and institute free health care for himself.

King said he “never voted to raise my pay or voted for or received free health care or insurance. ... When I had the chance, I voted to freeze my pay. Iowans will not tolerate being lied to.”

The Mowrer camp has refused to withdraw the commercial.

Whether the bickering will matter to Iowa voters remains to be seen on Nov. 4. But most agree that the incumbent still has the edge in this race.

King’s far-to-the-right style has appealed to Iowans in the most GOP-heavy congressional district in the state.

Even with the redistricting before the 2012 elections, when Iowa dropped from five House seats to four, King retained a solid GOP core in the northwest corner of the state.

He earned at least 57 percent of the vote in each of his first five congressional elections, starting in 2002 when he represented the former 5th District, which was a swath of western Iowa counties from the Minnesota state line to Missouri’s.

Two years ago, in the then-new 4th District, King withstood a well-funded challenge from former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack and earned 52 percent of the vote.

Now seeking a seventh term, nearly 38 percent of voters in the 4th District are registered Republicans, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office. Some 36 percent are independents and 26 percent are registered Democrats.

And King is likely to benefit from Iowa’s heated, nationally watched U.S. Senate race, which could attract more Republicans voting the party line.

“You can call the 4th District the kingdom of Steve King — the Steve Kingdom,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University.

“The Republican heart of Iowa drives this district,” said analyst David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

A Loras College poll released Sept. 10 showed King with 47 percent support and Mowrer with 36 percent.

Goldford said Mowrer is a strong candidate. He said his status as a combat veteran and former Pentagon official could appeal to some Republicans and independent voters who may be tired of King’s style.

Like Vilsack, Mowrer is well-funded, edging King in fundraising throughout the race. The latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission showed Mowrer had raised $1.1 million through June 30, and King, $1 million.

Even so, Goldford said, “It’s still an uphill battle” for Mowrer.

On the campaign trail, Mowrer said he highlights his platform, which includes raising Iowa’s minimum wage, and his support for President Barack Obama’s plan to address terrorism by the Islamic State.

But Mowrer, who is from Boone, also is trying to make the election about King, his conservative policies and his penchant for controversial statements.

King, who lives in Kiron, is a politician people love or hate — or love to hate.

He’s established his own provocative conservative brand by delivering lengthy speeches on the House floor after the formal business of the day is completed and appearing frequently on cable television and talk radio. He has taken on every hot-button issue, from abortion to same-sex marriage.

“Congressman King is not a Republican — he’s a Tea Partier,” Mowrer said in an interview. “To me, it’s not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about a clear choice as to how to move forward.”

For his part, King is accustomed to the Tea Party label and doesn’t mind.

“I’ve been through this gantlet before and it feels pretty familiar. Iowans have re-elected me, so that’s my response as to whether I relate to most voters in my district,” the congressman said.

King also is a staunch opponent of illegal immigration, widely known for sharp rhetoric on the subject.

Last year, for example, King told an interviewer that he sympathizes with young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children, didn’t choose to break the law and have since worked hard in school. But he went on to suggest that valedictorians are only a small segment of those who have crossed the border illegally.

“For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another hundred out there that — they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King said.

“King’s been riding those issues for a long time,” Goldford said. “There is at least a perception on the part of Republican rural people that the states are being overrun by illegal immigrants, and that’s served King well.”

For his part, King makes no apologies for his statements. His opponents are the ones in the wrong, he said, and his firmly held beliefs are rooted in helping his constituents.

“The voters deserve objective honesty and objective truth, and if it’s an uncomfortable truth, I’ll be the first one to utter it,” King said.

Mowrer said he supports a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate that he says would double border security, as well as create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States. King opposes it.

Mowrer also supports the Affordable Care Act, though he says it can be improved. King wants the health care law repealed.

Wasserman noted that Vilsack’s connections to Obama — her husband, former Gov. Tom Vilsack, is the secretary of agriculture — may have hurt her in a district that went for the president’s GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, in 2012.

“Mowrer is a fresh face,” Wasserman said. “But it’s very difficult for any Democrat to win there.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-3100, maggie.obrien@owh.com

* * *

Steve King's got a way of winning

Since he was first elected in 2002, U.S. Rep. Steve King has easily beaten his challengers. He’s outraised them financially as well. Here’s a look at how the controversial Republican has fared against the Democrats who tried to unseat him.

YearRaceMoney raised% of vote
 Paul Shomshor $92,00038%
 Joyce Schulte$60,00035%
 Joyce Schulte$73,00035%
2008King$1 million58%
 Rob Hubler$293,00036%
2010King$1 million64%
 Matthew Campbell$250,00031%
2012King$3.8 million52%
 Christie Vilsack$3.4 million44%

Sources: Iowa Secretary of State’s Office, Opensecrets.org

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