NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- One day after Jeb Bush's plea for a big-tent Republican Party, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, used his CPAC speech to encourage a renewed emphasis on the very social arguments that threaten to splinter the conservative movement.
As Republicans debate his general election viability in Iowa's open-seat Senate race -- and King continues to consider a bid -- the sixth-term congressman argued that the GOP's path to victory will come not from an appeal to the middle, but an embrace of the grassroots. "There are some people within our movement that want to rebrand the Republican Party," King said. "They may succeed in doing that, but they're never going to rebrand us conservatives."
King referenced his hard-won reelection in 2012 against former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack, boasting that he made social issues a crux of his campaign at a time when many Republicans were scared to address the topic. "A bunch of people who have been backing away from these challenges don't realize that I'm still standing," he said. "I didn't run a campaign on jobs and the economy."
That approach, King said, carries more appeal than ducking controversial issues. "If people don't understand that we have a core faith of beliefs, [they] don't trust [our] agenda," he said. "I'll stand there with all of the people who want to rebrand the Republican Party to work on the economic side of this agenda. But I invite all of them to come over with all of us to work together on the full spectrum of constitutional conservatism, including life and marriage and the rule of the law."
King played to a CPAC crowd that had booed lustily when an earlier speaker referenced a Karl Rove-backed push to oust "unelectable" candidates. Making his pitch to the GOP's grassroots, King positioned himself even to the right of the man whose image loomed largest on the stage's backdrop -- Ronald Reagan. The 40th president "only let me down a couple of times in eight years," King said, recalling immigration as one of those times: "I still have the dent in my filing cabinet that I kicked it after I heard the news that he had signed the amnesty act of 1986."
As the Tea Party-vs.-establishment narrative hangs over the GOP field in Iowa's Senate race -- and the party wrestles with what constitutes electability -- King's answer to both was to point to his own electoral record. "I went through the toughest election of my life last fall," he said. "I didn't back up on any principle. … I stood on life, and I stood on marriage."