Rep. Steve King started 2019 on what might be his most precarious political footing in 16 years in Congress.
Primary challengers are lining up after he nearly lost the seat to a Democrat in November, and as his recent comments that appeared to condone white supremacy left the Iowa Republican stripped of crucial committee assignments and nearly unanimously reprimanded by his House colleagues.
But GOP operatives in the state who hope to retain the 4th District seat fear that if too many well-funded candidates seek to capitalize on King's weakened position, they could squander the most auspicious opportunity in years to oust the controversial lawmaker and, in turn, leave the seat vulnerable to a Democratic takeover.
"We’ve got to beat Steve first—that doesn’t happen in a multi-candidate primary," said Christopher Rants, a former Iowa House speaker who launched a super PAC to support a top King opponent. "For us to be successful at replacing the congressman in the primary and keep this in Republican hands, our best chance is if it's a two-person race."
After winning by 15 points in 2016, King two years later scraped a 3-point victory, a shocking margin in an area that has been a GOP stronghold. President Trump carried it by 27 points.
Local officials say the congressman has a core base of support throughout the 39 counties that compose his rural northwest Iowa district, providing him a high floor in a Republican primary. But years of making abrasive comments on immigration and race have given rise to powerful detractors in the state, and the movement to oust him has now gained unprecedented momentum.
So far, three Republicans have launched bids and several more are considering entering the primary. The risk is that an influx of candidates could dilute the anti-King vote, particularly if there are multiple contenders with a geographic base or large donor pools.
And Iowa's unusual election law adds another wrinkle: Should no candidate receive 35 percent of the vote, the nomination will be decided at a convention of party delegates. That scenario likely favors King, who won his seat at a 2002 convention and has strong backing from the Republican loyalists who could be crucial in recruiting supporters to run as delegates.
"He has a core group of people that will probably walk on nails for him," said Doug Gross, a longtime GOP operative in the state. "That's what helps you in a convention."
But Gross, a former top aide to ex-Gov. Terry Branstad who has known King for years, predicted that the congressman's path to victory would narrow and force him to drop out: "Iowa's long political nightmare is soon to be over."
King has given no indication he is considering retiring or heeding calls for him to resign before the end of his term. Two major newspapers in the district have called for him to do so.
Adding to the uncertainty is a push by Iowa lawmakers to change election law to require a top-two runoff—rather than a convention—if no candidate garners 35 percent.
A bill to change the law unanimously passed the state Senate in 2017 but was not taken up by the state House. The legislation's sponsor, Brad Zaun, said the Senate plans to pursue the bill again in the current session. He has filed a proposal that would go into effect for the 2020 cycle, and said he believes it will have traction in the lower chamber.
The motivation and timing behind the bill is unrelated to King. Zaun has pushed the measure for years after he lost a 2014 convention in a Des Moines-based district to former Republican Rep. David Young after being the top vote-getter in the June primary.
"It wasn't Steve King. It has nothing to do with him or anybody else out there," Zaun said. "It’s just based on my experience and based on feedback that I’ve gotten from so many Iowans."
But it could have serious implications for the congressman. If King doesn't clear 35 percent in a crowded primary, he could face a steep climb to reach 50 percent in a runoff.
Some Iowa Republicans eager to oust King have begun to consolidate around one declared challenger: Randy Feenstra, a state senator and chairman of the powerful Ways and Means committee.
Rants, the former state House speaker, created a super PAC to boost him. Matt Leopold, the political director for Gov. Kim Reynolds's successful 2018 campaign, is on Feenstra's staff. And John Gleeson, a Sioux City businessman and major GOP donor, is backing Feenstra, who announced raising $100,000 in the first 10 days of his campaign.
But his strong initial showing hasn't kept the field small yet. A former mayor, Bret Richards, and Jeremy Taylor, a Woodbury County supervisor, launched bids in January. More could follow.
"I know that the Feenstra campaign would like to say no one else should get in because we’ve raised this amount of money," Taylor said in an interview. "I think the voters will reject that."
Feenstra could be a formidable candidate. His state Senate district includes about a quarter of Republican primary voters in the district, according to his campaign. And his home base is in Sioux County, which houses a trove of active, registered GOP voters.
The biggest threat to Feenstra and attempts to keep the field small would be the emergence of another top-tier candidate with the ability to fundraise. There has been interest from some GOP operatives in drafting a well-connected businessman into the race.
One such candidate is Chris McGowan, the president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce. He has long been floated to run for office, could drum up considerable funds through his business contacts, and is unburdened by a voting record.
The Club for Growth has expressed an interest in playing against King in the primary but likely won't make an endorsement until closer to 2020. The conservative special-interest group has had early conversations with both Feenstra and McGowan.
Should King decide not to run, there is no shortage of big names in the district who could consider a bid: state House Speaker Linda Upmeyer; Bill Northey, an Agriculture Department official; and Sam Clovis, a former adviser to President Trump.
Few expect them to mount a challenge to a sitting congressman, but there is still pent-up ambition among lower-profile candidates who may not be deterred by King's incumbency in the face of growing pressure. The governor and Iowa's senators indicated they would stay neutral in the primary—a position they have not taken in the past when King faced intra-party competition.
Both of the Republicans who challenged him in 2016 and 2018 have expressed interest in running again next year.
"Nobody has said to me that they’re convinced that we have the right candidate in the mix yet," said Rick Sanders, a Story County supervisor who is also exploring a run. "I know of people who I haven't heard mentioned anywhere yet that absolutely are considering it."