King’s declining influence in Washington gave his GOP foes an opening. The campaign against him was “not about relitigating the controversial things he said,” David Kochel, a GOP strategist originally from Iowa, told me last week. It was easier for his opponents to make the case “that it doesn’t do any good for the district if he can’t get things into legislation or be on the committees that have the biggest impact on our communities.”
Many high-profile Republicans abandoned their long-held support for King to embrace Feenstra in the past year, including Bob Vander Plaats, the Iowa-based head of the Family Leader, a social-conservative umbrella organization. “Not only should a person be a respected representative in D.C., but they should have a leadership position in D.C.,” Vander Plaats told me.
Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which rarely endorses against Republican incumbents, backed Feenstra, spending $200,000 in advertising on the race and airing an ad to remind voters that King was kicked off the Agriculture Committee in the middle of a farming crisis. It chose to altogether avoid King’s past comments. “We like to stick to our lane,” Scott Reed, the chamber’s senior political strategist, told me.
King’s primary opponents, too, chose to lean into their conservative bona fides rather than delve into the fraught territory of the congressman’s social-media posts and rhetoric. Feenstra spent the campaign touting his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association (compared with King’s A–) while condemning King for failing to deliver for the district. Taylor, another King opponent, demurred when I asked last week why he didn’t talk about King’s rhetoric on the trail: “He’s a decent man,” he said, but “we’ll lose this seat if he’s the nominee.” Richards, the former businessman, said that he made a conscious choice to avoid condemning King’s comments during the campaign. “Congressman King’s granddaughter and my daughter will play volleyball and softball against each other,” he told me. “I’m not going to say anything bad where I can’t sit in the gym and look at his granddaughter at the end of the day.”
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The candidates, in other words, were engaging in a form of triangulation—attempting to endear themselves to King’s supporters while positioning themselves as a safe and preferable alternative. Nathan Lichter and Mark Saunders, two Feenstra supporters who work as feed-truck drivers in the district, told me they understood that strategy. “A lot of King supporters have no problem with his racist comments, so it’s more trying to get them on board with I can do a better job,” Saunders told me.
The approach clearly ended up working for Feenstra. Nearly 60,000 Republicans in the district mailed in absentee ballots, according to the Iowa secretary of state’s office. An additional 19,000 people voted in person. Compare that with the 2018 GOP primary, when a total of just 39,000 votes were cast. But while Democrats may cast King’s defeat as a small victory over racism, they may have just lost an opportunity to flip a House seat.