Next weekend, four Republican presidential candidates will descend on the Hole N’ the Wall Lodge in Akron, Iowa, near the Nebraska border, to eat, chat, and hunt pheasants with Iowa representative Steve King and several of his friends. Three of the four — Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, and Bobby Jindal — will have bent over backward to make it: Though the hunt’s first day coincides with the Iowa GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Party, which will take place three and a half hours away in Des Moines, the three have committed to appear at both events.
Their eagerness to curry favor with King is understandable. He could be one of the most influential endorsers in Iowa this cycle, especially for candidates looking to win the state’s large, vocal bloc of social conservatives. But just how influential depends entirely on what role he seeks in the 2016 race. In 2012, his endorsement was highly sought, but he never picked a favorite. This cycle, he has already set himself up as a power broker, giving a multitude of candidates the platform from which to shine. But is that all he wants, or will he play kingmaker and anoint a winner?
Early on in the cycle, King set himself up to be a player in the caucuses, hosting a January cattle call that informally kicked off the state’s Republican race. The Iowa Freedom Summit, as it was called, made headlines, shooting Scott Walker to the top of the state’s polls and the national conversation. For a time, it seemed King might be able to take the credit for introducing Iowans to the man who became the almost uncontested front-runner in their caucuses.
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“If I walk into a voting both and you decide, ‘Okay, I gotta pick one,’ you ex the box and you walk out,” he says. “But an endorsement is something different. It’s when I say to people, ‘I’ve had the insight into these individuals, and this is the one I profoundly believe would make the best president.’ That’s something different than just voting, so I’m not one of those people that will pick a date on the calendar and say, ‘By then I’ll make an endorsement.’”
With just over three months to go until the Iowa caucuses, the timing of King’s endorsement matters.
“If he comes out with an endorsement, say, from mid-November to mid-December, I think his endorsement could really carry a lot of weight,” says Bob Vander Plaats, the influential Iowa social conservative who runs The Family Leader organization. But by January 2016 there will be few undecided voters left, and while they’d “respect” King’s choice, it would likely be too late to change their minds.
That puts King in something of a bind. Tentatively, Iowa Republicans are still expecting him to hold the Iowa Freedom Summit again in January. If he endorses before then and goes through with the Freedom Summit, Republicans affiliated with several campaigns say that no one but King’s preferred candidate is likely to show up. But if he holds the event and waits until afterward to endorse, his choice will mean much less to voters.
Iowa Republicans expect that if King chooses to endorse, he will get behind Ted Cruz.
Iowa Republicans expect that if King chooses to endorse, he will get behind Ted Cruz. The two have a personal friendship, and though King describes all the candidates as friends, his affinity and respect for Cruz are clear.
King’s son, Jeff King, is running a super PAC backing Cruz, and state senator Bill Anderson, a policy adviser for King, has endorsed the Texas firebrand. Iowa Republicans read those endorsements as indicators that King himself is leaning toward Cruz. Most Iowa Republicans believe King’s son, a longtime lieutenant of his father’s, would not have gotten on board with the senator unless he had his dad’s blessing.
Anderson says he talked to King before moving to endorse Cruz, but he says there’s no coordination. “I do like to bounce things off of him and see what his thoughts are, and I don’t think folks should read too much into that,” he says. The congressman, he adds, has always been supportive of the idea that “you have to manage your brand.”
King’s decision to hold off on an endorsement so far may reflect a certain image-consciousness of his own.
In late August at the Iowa State Fair, as Walker’s fade was becoming more and more apparent, King told me he thought Donald Trump had utterly scrambled the field, and he said his advice to any candidate would be to position himself for second or third or fourth place, so as to be in position in case the billionaire real-estate mogul slumped. “Right now,” he added, “I don’t think anybody can catch Trump unless something happens.”
That type of talk, Iowa Republicans say, is a window on King’s thinking. Those who have dealt with him over the years are quick to note that he is very much a political tactician. Most believe that with Trump and Ben Carson having rewritten the rules of presidential politics this cycle, King will wait to endorse until it becomes clear who can put up a real fight on February 1. Some Iowa Republicans think Cruz is the most likely to emerge as that candidate, pulling off the difficult task of uniting the right flank of the party and surging to victory.
So it could be taken as a bad sign for Cruz if King ultimately opts not to offer an endorsement, given all the indicators that he prefers the Texas senator. If he did not endorse, it could make it appear that King believes neither Cruz nor anyone else can beat Trump and Carson, who together suck up about 47 percent of support in the most recent poll in Iowa.
King is a vigorous campaigner, even if he hasn’t endorsed a candidate. He regularly appears at events that the various presidential contenders hold in his district. Anderson recalls King’s efforts to help his own state senate bids and the Thompson campaign. There is “no better campaigner, no harder worker,” he says. “I don’t know if there’s a more valuable ally who will do more to help your campaign.”
Still, the main benefit of King’s endorsement would be the loyal supporters he could bring with him.
“He has a very faithful grassroots following,” Vander Plaats says. “And these are the people that show up on caucus night. They take politics, these elections, very seriously, and so they respect Steve King’s voice a lot. They see him as someone who has not been tainted by Washington, D.C. . . . someone who has just held onto his values.”In a year with at least a half-dozen contenders for the social-conservative mantle in Iowa, King’s stamp of approval could help consolidate support for a single candidate, amplifying the bloc’s influence on caucus day. Social conservatives in Iowa have historically failed to coalesce around a single candidate, often allowing a more establishment-style candidate to cut a path to victory.
“Our destruction in the past has been division — that we divide ourselves among a lot of candidates,” says Vander Plaats.
King could have some influence in helping arrest that divide — if he chooses. Though he risks undermining his clout by endorsing a candidate who cannot pull it off, Iowa Republicans say not endorsing for a second cycle in a row could also diminish his future influence.
“He seems like he makes a lot of candidates jump through a series of hoops, and there’s no rewards at the end,” says Craig Robinson, the editor in chief of The Iowa Republican. “How many times are the dogs gonna run the track if there’s no prize at the end to be had?”
— Alexis Levinson is a senior political reporter for National Review.