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Bob Vander Plaats possesses an increasingly rare commodity in American politics: influence.
The evangelical Iowan, who runs the socially conservative Family Leader organization, tipped the 2012 Iowa GOP caucuses to Rick Santorum with a late endorsement. Iowa evangelicals were the reason Ted Cruz upset Donald Trump in the 2016 caucuses. And in 2020, they are an essential reason why GOP congressman Steve King is packing his bags after suffering a ten-point primary loss to state senator Randy Feenstra last week.
When David Kochel, a veteran Iowa GOP operative, had helped raise some $350,000 for a super PAC opposing King, he knew that Vander Plaats was just the person to call.
“Whatever you think of Steve King, it’s clear that he’s no longer effective,” Vander Plaats said in the super PAC’s TV ad. “Thankfully, Iowa has a better choice: Randy Feenstra is pro-life, pro-family Republican who delivers.”
Vander Plaats is quick to share credit with many Republicans at the state and federal level for King’s ouster. Former governor Terry Branstad (who had once defeated Vander Plaats in a gubernatorial primary) cut a check for Feenstra. Governor Kim Reynolds and U.S. senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst refused to endorse King. “Their silence was deafening,” Vander Plaats tells National Review. An official at the National Right to Life Committee, which endorsed Feenstra, couldn’t recall the last time the organization opposed a GOP incumbent with a generally strong voting record.
At the root of King’s problems were an increasing number of bizarre and bigoted remarks.
“He’s changed over the years,” says Kochel, a moderate who donated to King’s campaign in 2012. Kochel says the first real red flag he noticed was in 2013 when King said that for every high-school valedictorian who had come to America illegally as a minor “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.”
Some Republicans cringed, but King remained in good standing in the party. He served, along with Vander Plaats, as national co-chair of Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.
It wasn’t until 2018 when Republicans began to turn away from King. In October of that year, the Iowa congressman endorsed a white-nationalist mayoral candidate in Canada. That same month, Adam Rubenstein reported at The Weekly Standard that King referred to immigrants as “dirt” at a campaign event. King accused Rubenstein (my colleague at the time) of making up the quotation, but audiotape confirmed King said the exact words that had been reported. A couple of weeks later, King only narrowly won reelection in his solidly Republican district.
King’s near loss is what influenced the influential Vander Plaats to consider backing a GOP primary challenger. “I think the tipping point for me, which is what really caught my attention, was when [Democratic congressional candidate] J. D. Scholten in 2018 came within three points of defeating him,” says Vander Plaats. “That is a district that should be a double-digit win every time for a Republican.” Vander Plaats says that around Christmas of 2018 was when state senator Randy Feenstra spoke to him about the possibility of challenging King.
The incumbent Republican King was already on thin ice when he said in a 2019 interview with the New York Times: “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 House passed a resolution condemning the remarks, and GOP congressional leaders stripped King of his committee assignments.
The loss of committee assignments allowed Feenstra to appeal to Republicans concerned about King’s loss of influence. “Feenstra was really smart with his message,” says Kochel. “The margin was a lot greater than I expected.”
Iowa Republicans found the right candidate at the right time in Feenstra. He ran up the score with huge margins in the staunchly conservative district he represents in the state senate. Another factor that boosted Feenstra was the decision by Iowa’s secretary of state to send out absentee-ballot applications to registered Republicans and Democrats for their respective primaries because of the coronavirus pandemic. The mostly mail election led to a surge in Republican turnout that helped power Feenstra to victory.
“It was a perfect storm,” Vander Plaats says of the forces that came together to deliver a 46 percent to 36 percent victory for Feenstra over King last week. “Sixty-four percent of the Republican voters in the 4th District consciously made a decision to vote against a nine-term incumbent congressman, and that is unprecedented.”