The seven-term Iowa congressman has been an unabashed conservative during his time in Washington. Like Michele Bachmann, he is one of a handful of Republican House members whose quotes regularly appear on left-wing blogs. Think Progress described King in a 2012 blog post (one of many about him) as “one of the most radical members of Congress.”
Now, fresh off defeating well-funded and high-profile Democratic opponent Christie Vilsack (wife of Tom Vilsack, agriculture Secretary and former Iowa governor) in his congressional race in a new district this fall, King is eyeing a new opportunity: running for Senate in Iowa. Democrat Tom Harkin’s decision to retire means that, for the first time in 39 years, Iowa will have an open Senate seat.
Iowa Republicans widely agree that King and fellow Iowa Republican congressman Tom Latham are the most likely to mount a serious bid for the Senate, although the consensus is that Latham and King won’t opt to run against each other. King says he plans to talk to Latham in the near future, denying that the two have made any decision about who will run and who won’t.
Unlike King, Latham has no history of controversial remarks. “He’s more thoughtful and selective than combative, but he has a very conservative voting record, [and] he has strong appeal, even across party lines, just on how he conducts himself and how he is viewed,” says Craig Robinson, former Iowa GOP political director.
Latham, Robinson adds, is probably the “top recruit” for Republicans looking at the race.
“Obama beat Mitt Romney in Polk County by 30,000 votes,” Robinson, who is also the editor of TheIowaRepublican.com, notes. “Leonard Boswell [Latham’s Democratic opponent for the House seat] beat Tom Latham in Polk County by 4,000 votes. I think that speaks very highly of how Tom Latham is viewed.”
And while Latham is less of a firebrand than King, he does have some appeal for tea-partiers, who are likely to approve of his decision in 2008 to vote against TARP, for example. “Everybody loves him, establishment and tea party,” remarks a well-connected Iowa Republican. “He’s not going to say some of the outlandish things that plagued other [GOP Senate candidates] this last time around.”
There are others names bandied about as prospective candidates — including prominent social conservative and former gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats, secretary of agriculture Bill Northey, lieutenant governor Kim Reynolds — but the consensus is that, barring an unexpected event, either Latham or King will be the top candidate.
King is adamant he can handle the pressure and media scrutiny of being a Republican senate candidate in what could well be a close race — and that he won’t be the Todd Akin of 2014 if he opts to run and wins the nomination. King points to his last congressional election — where he faced a prominent opponent and was running in a new district — as proof. “My opponent designed her whole campaign about [trying] to get that moment” with a controversial quote. “And obviously, they didn’t, even though they printed an unlimited number of, if I want to be charitable, I would call them intentional misquotes.”
King acknowledges his Internet presence, commenting that he tends to see three controversial quotes ascribed to him. “Two of the three are dishonest, and that other one is warped,” he remarks, refusing to identify the quotes. “So they have to make it up now.”
One quote that stirred controversy this summer — and that King’s staff said was taken out of context — had King saying to SiouxLand News, “Well I just haven’t heard of that being a circumstance that’s been brought to me in any personal way, and I’d be open to discussion about that subject matter.” The “subject matter” was a 12-year-old being pregnant as a result of statutory rape or incest. King has also taken heat for making this analogy about prospective immigrants: “You get the pick of the litter and you got yourself a pretty good bird dog. Well, we’ve got the pick of every donor civilization on the planet. We’ve got the vigor from the planet to come to America.”
“You’ve got a bunch of dishonest people with millions of dollars,” King continues, alluding to the liberal blogosphere, “and I don’t know why they have any credibility. We should really look at them and push their input off the scene, since it’s not valid.” Does he ask for corrections? “Not in every case. If it’s a publication that has some credibility, like AP, we will, but if it’s the left-wing organizations, they exist to perpetuate those things, and so you’re not going to get journalism or cooperation from those places.”
Robinson agrees that it’s plausible King could win a statewide contest — and that he’s a more formidable opponent than his detractors acknowledge.
“This constant argument that King is unable to win a statewide contest is incorrect,” Robinson says. “The Democrats’ top candidate is [Iowa congressman] Bruce Braley. He’s kind of the liberal version of King in a way. And so they’re very similar.”
“The race would be more polarized if King was in it,” Robinson acknowledges, “but also you would spur a ton of activist activity if he was the nominee. . . . The Des Moines Register says Iowans don’t like him; they’ve never really witnessed King doing the town-square circuit. He’s a very good politician and very reasonable, and some of his stuff gets overhyped and that’s why there’s a perception of him that he is unable to win in Eastern Iowa,” which is more independent.
King simply points to his track record when talking about why he’d be a formidable Republican candidate.
“I’ve been elected in 53 of the 99 counties,” King remarks, referring to the two different congressional districts he’s won, “and we’ve won with significant majorities along the way.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.