Why Steve King’s Supporters Are Staying Loyal

The Iowa Republican’s racist comments have made him a pariah among Democrats and Republicans alike. But his voters may be more devoted to him than ever.

Rich Koele / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

HOLSTEIN, IOWA—One of Representative Steve King’s most ardent defenders is a man named Mark Leonard. And Mark Leonard is obsessed with the Civil War.

A few times every year, the 63-year-old chair of the Ida County Republicans travels to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he gives tours and lectures dressed as General John Buford, a mustachioed Union brigadier general to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. Leonard’s home, located about a mile north of the town’s only stoplight, is filled—filled—with paintings of Confederate soldiers. In his office alone there’s one of General Robert E. Lee on horseback, exhausted after a long day of battle; another showing Lee talking to four of his lieutenants; and a third, framed by a pair of cavalry officers’ sabers, of the general seated outside a tent: The Loneliness of Command, by Mort Künstler.

Leonard has collected the paintings for years. “I think tearing down Confederate monuments or being offended by a Confederate battle flag is one of the dumbest things the left has ever done,” he told me when I visited his house last month. “Because they don’t know who these Confederates were.” They were good men, Leonard said. Literate, loyal, God-fearing.

Leonard defends the Confederates in the same way he defends his own people, the residents of Iowa’s Fourth District, who for 16 years have sent Steve King to Congress. The racist and xenophobic comments King has made in recent years have made him a pariah among Republicans and Democrats alike. Yet since 2003, the Iowa lawmaker continues to be reelected—a phenomenon that has perplexed many Americans and members of the political class. The left unfairly and erroneously targets King and his supporters, Leonard said, because it doesn’t know who they really are.

When King won his most recent reelection campaign, I reported that some Iowans backed him despite his racist remarks, that they were willing to look past them because of King's conservative positions on guns and abortion. But as became clear during my recent trip to northwest Iowa, many of his voters wholeheartedly agree with him—and they don’t think he’s said anything wrong.

When I asked Leonard about King’s 2017 claim that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” he said he felt the same way. “If we bring people from another culture here and overpopulate this place with people from a different culture, we won’t build up American culture,” Leonard said, a claim I heard from others in the district as well. “Most people aren’t going to have an appreciation for what these folks on my walls went through,” he added, gesturing to his Confederate paintings. “There’s nothing racist about it. It’s a truth.”

King is facing a difficult primary next year—probably the toughest he's ever had. He's lost support from the GOP establishment, he’s low on money, and he’s facing multiple Republican challengers. But his remaining supporters seem more devoted to him than ever as he’s under siege.

“It’s kind of the ‘Live free or die’ mentality,” said Art Cullen, the editor of a local newspaper, who has written column after column condemning King’s comments. “We get ignored by Des Moines, we get flown over, and nobody pays attention to us. The manifestation of that is Screw you, here’s Steve King.

Geographically, at least, King’s district, where I lived for four years, is quintessential Iowa: rolling fields and wind turbines and sky stretching on for miles. Here, you can see a storm approaching long before it hits. The region is extremely red; its residents, who are predominantly Christian and socially conservative, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016. King has won each of his reelections here by sizable margins—although last year’s contest was his closest yet: J. D. Scholten, the Democrat who ran as a foil to King’s abrasiveness, lost to him by a slim 3 percent.

Iowa has seen an influx of Latino immigrants in the past two decades. The Latino population in the mostly white state grew by more than 130 percent from 2000 to 2017. Storm Lake—King’s birthplace in the district—has become one of the most diverse towns in the state. Nearly 38 percent of the town’s population identifies as Latino, and some 83 percent of children in the school district are students of color.

As the demographics of his state and district were shifting, King was adding to his repertoire of inflammatory comments. A Trumpian figure long before Trump himself came on the political scene, King has become a symbol of racism and xenophobia for Americans on both sides of the aisle. In 2013, the lawmaker argued that for every young undocumented immigrant who becomes class valedictorian, there are 100 with “calves the size of cantaloupes” from transporting drugs. In an interview with a far-right Austrian publication last year, King wondered aloud: “What does this diversity bring that we don't already have?” And in January of this year, congressional Republicans stripped King of his House committee assignments after he spoke to The New York Times about white supremacy. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” King asked the paper. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” (King claimed that he was misquoted by the paper).

After King beat Scholten in November’s midterm election, I chalked his victory up to party loyalty. That was the case for many voters, and it still is. “It’s not so easily explained as we’re just a bunch of racist hicks,” Cullen told me. But there are also plenty of people in the district who vote for King, in part, because he shares their values on immigration. They see him as realistic—not racist. (King did not respond to requests for comment for this story).

Reflecting on King’s Times interview, Leonard told me that even if the paper’s quotes were accurate, the congressman hadn’t said anything factually incorrect: The term white supremacist shouldn’t be offensive. “Look at what actually the word supreme means. It doesn’t mean ‘better’; it means ‘dominant,’” Leonard said. “Whites are supreme in this country—that’s a fact … I don’t know [that white people] are trying to run the country and the businesses to the detriment of anybody else, though.”

Leonard, who runs his own financial-services company and raises Limousin cattle, is somewhat of a bigwig in local politics. As the leader of the Ida County Republicans, he, along with his wife, Sheryl, has hosted several presidential candidates for fundraisers and meet-and-greets at his home over the years, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Texas Governor and current Energy Secretary Rick Perry. In 2005, when Leonard ran unsuccessfully for secretary of agriculture in the state, former Governor and current Ambassador to China Terry Branstad served on his advisory committee.

Leonard knows King personally and considers him a friend. He’s become his informal spokesperson in the press. But I heard his defense of King echoed repeatedly by regular voters throughout northwest Iowa.

Just 30 miles down the road from Leonard’s home, in the 1,600-person town of Moville, the Woodbury County Fair was in full swing. Fairgoers wandered through rows of fried-food stands, inspected shiny green tractors, and dodged small children pulling their bottle calves toward the barns. Here, I spoke with nearly two dozen King supporters. Several were reluctant to talk with me, citing their distrust of the media, while others appeared eager to defend their congressman to a reporter. As they talked about immigration, they emphasized the need for “law and order,” asserting that an immigrant hoping to come to this country must do so legally, regardless of how desperate he or she is.

“I don’t want to call them ‘illegal,’ because I don’t think that’s the right word,” Susan Redenius, a golf-course manager from Correctionville, told me. The 49-year-old was seated on a bench next to her mobility scooter at the edge of the fairgrounds. “But I think there should be consequences,” she said. If you come in and you take jobs from us, I don’t think that’s such a big deal when you’ve done it the right way … That’s how America was made, on immigrants—immigrants who came through the proper channels.”

Redenius believes that King shares her views: She’s voted for him before, she said, and she’ll do it again in 2020. But when I asked her specifically about some of the more derogatory comments the congressman has made about immigrants, she thought for a minute before implying that the community is still adjusting to its changing demographics. I’m people-watching today,” she told me, gesturing toward passersby. “The diversity at the fair, we didn’t have that before … I had one different-race person in my whole 13 years of school.” Redenius thought for a few more seconds about what King has said. “I don’t think it’s [on] purpose and I don’t think it’s meant that way.”

Every King fan I met at the fair was also a fierce supporter of President Trump, and they seemed exasperated when I asked about his widely condemned comments urging four progressive lawmakers, all women of color, to “go back” to where they came from. “What is a racist anymore?” said Rocky DeWitt, who was manning a booth for the Woodbury County Republicans, when I asked whether he thinks any of Trump’s or King’s comments fit the bill. “Racist in the liberal logic is just somebody that doesn’t agree with what you say.”

DeWitt, who sits on the Woodbury County board of supervisors, explained that he fully supports legal immigration, but expects immigrants to make it clear that their allegiance is to the United States. “When you see other people come in illegally, and fly their flag on our soil, our flag may not even be on the pole!” he said. “They may have their nationality—their ethnic flag—hanging outside their house. Then why did you come here?”

The King supporters I met were broadly concerned with protecting their own ideas of American identity. Newcomers, with their various cultural and religious traditions, are failing to assimilate, they argued. Their traditions don’t become a part of American culture, in this view; rather, those traditions defy it. Leonard, during my visit to Holstein, told me he generally supports the expansion of legal immigration, but only if immigrants are properly vetted to ensure that “they’re not coming here only to re-create their own crumbling society that they left.” He still acknowledged, though, that part of American culture “is the things that people have brought from where they live, but we’ve blended it together.” It’s fun, Leonard said, the way some families in Holstein have kept German and Swedish traditions alive.

Can immigrants from, say, Guatemala do the same—blend in their traditions? I asked.

“They could,” he replied, leaning back in his leather desk chair. “But they have to want to.”

I ended my trip through King’s district in a garage workshop just outside the little town of Fonda, where several white-haired women were seated around a large quilt, piecing together squares of yellow, blue, white, and red fabric. The group, called Freedom Quilts, makes blankets to send to veterans and their families, firefighters, and police officers. It was an informal gathering: The women, who are mostly retired, drive out to the garage a few times a week to sew, eat, and talk. Betty Nielsen, who started the group after the September 11 attacks, told me over the din of the sewing machines that the conversation rarely strays into politics, but if it does, “it's done with respect, you know, which is something that is lacking” in national politics.

Nielsen said she yearns for the days when people didn’t constantly call one another racist, and she thinks her congressman deserves better. He’s devoted to his constituents, she said, noting that he’s attended many Freedom Quilts events. Nielsen has and will continue to vote for King for that reason—but also because, it seemed, she really hates the way he and his supporters have been characterized. “By calling us stupid, deplorable, racist, and all those other names that they've come up with, it just turns you off,” Nielsen said, shaking her head. “And you actually don't even want to hear them. Whether they have good points, you just block them off.”

King is in for a tough primary in 2020. At the end of June, his reelection campaign reported having only $18,000 on hand, the lowest figure King has ever reported in the first six months of an election cycle. And his Times comments had significant repercussions. King “definitely hemorrhaged support from many traditional institutional Republican groups” after he was thrown off the House Judiciary and Agriculture Committees, Douglas Burns, a journalist and co-owner of a local newspaper, the Carroll Daily Times Herald, told me earlier this month. King’s remarks, Burns added, have become “toxic” for some local businesses and organizations that would typically support him. King has attracted three challengers from within his own party, including Randy Feenstra, an assistant majority leader in the state Senate who has argued that King is an embarrassment to the district. And Scholten announced on August 5 that he’ll try once again to unseat King from the left.

District residents, in other words, will not find themselves lacking options next year. But the King supporters I spoke with haven’t changed their minds. They’re tired of the left criticizing him, and they’re sick of being asked about every controversial comment he’s made. But they’re not tired enough to vote for someone else; to support a less bombastic Republican, a safer Republican, would be to give in to the left’s demands. “Loyalty is not a character flaw,” Leonard told me.

“Liberals gotta quit insulting people,” he explained later, as we wrapped up our interview. “They’ve got to quit calling us names.”