WASHINGTON — Representative Steve King has compared illegal immigrants to livestock. He tried last week to overthrow House Speaker John Boehner for being too moderate. And he was quick to defend a colleague who spoke before a white supremacist group in 2002, saying, “Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners.”
King could also play an important role in choosing the 2016 Republican nominee. A politician who delights Tea Party activists, riles liberals, and infuriates the Republican establishment, King is gathering outsized influence in presidential politics as a gatekeeper in the first caucus state, Iowa, and with a following that is attracting even moderates such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
It puts him at the fulcrum of the continuing debate about the heart and soul of the Republican Party, as well as the potential perils of Iowa’s role in the presidential nominating contest. He also illustrates the irresistible tug of conservative activists in the GOP primary — because they have the most energy and can field ground troops and build excitement — as well as the worries that the party will go too far in catering to them.
“He represents the conservative conscience in Iowa,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party who now runs the influential website the Iowa Republican. “For what the conservative activist is thinking and feeling in Iowa, Steve King is a reflection of that.”
In two weeks, King will host a forum in Des Moines that will feature some of the top presidential hopefuls in what is billed as a kickoff to the state’s yearlong evaluation of the presidential contenders.
Among those expected to attend the Iowa Freedom Summit, which is also hosted by Citizens United, are Christie, former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, former senator Rick Santorum, and the neurologist-turned-conservative firebrand Ben Carson. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, developer and television personality Donald Trump, and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin also are planning to attend.
“I’m very, very happy with the slate we have,” King said in an interview. “I want to provide access for the candidates to the Iowa activists, and I want to provide access for the activists to the candidates.”
But others in the party worry about King’s influence, particularly at a time when some Republicans are trying to use more inclusive rhetoric and broaden their outreach to minorities. After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, the Republican National Committee produced a report concluding that it needed to do far more to reach out to Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.
“I’m a strong advocate of immigration reform, and the Republican Party cannot have Steve King be its spokesman on this issue if it hopes to prosper,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “Responsible people can disagree on the issue, but he’s clearly a guy that likes to exploit it for political purpose and goes out of his way to use inflammatory rhetoric.”
“Responsible candidates should find an excuse not to go there,” he added. “I’m disappointed that Chris Christie has accepted the invitation to go to this.”
Christie supporters say that he could benefit by appealing to some of the conservative elements in the party, broadening his appeal beyond his more moderate base.
Christie also has a personal history with King. In 2009, when Christie was running for governor, he faced pointed questions during a congressional hearing about some of his actions as US attorney in New Jersey. King came to Christie’s defense, and as his star has risen, Christie has held several fund-raisers for King.
“Christie and King have been friends for years, predating his time as governor, so he accepted the personal invite,” said Mike DuHaime, who is Christie’s top political adviser. “Christie has done events for King in 2010, 2012, and 2014, so doing an event for or with him is nothing new.”
Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush is not planning to be there, citing a “scheduling conflict.”
King said the criticism of him is overplayed and said the number of potential candidates coming to his forum is an indication that he isn’t so radioactive.
“People in Iowa know me, they know my positions. And they’re not concerned,” he said.
King’s power in the past has come through his events and his efforts to emphasize issues he cares about. He didn’t endorse anyone in 2012, and in 2008, he backed third-place-finisher Fred Thompson. He says he hopes to endorse a candidate in 2016.
“I think King has always been more interested in advancing issues than a personality running for president,” Robinson said. “The kingmaker tab is a little misleading.”
For King, there is no issue more fundamental to the country than immigration. He has called illegal immigration both a “slow-motion holocaust” and “a slow-rolling, slow-motion terrorist attack on the United States.”
In 2013, he compared illegal immigrants hoping to gain citizenship under the DREAM Act to drug mules.
“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another hundred out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” he told the conservative site Newsmax.
The comments were denounced by prominent Republicans, including Boehner, but they also riled up conservative opposition to an immigration package that was passed by the Senate but never taken up by the House.
Still, Republican presidential candidates have sought to curry favor with King, sometimes awkwardly.
Senator Rand Paul this summer sat down for dinner with King at a campaign event this summer when an illegal immigrant confronted King. Paul quickly got up from his seat, grabbed his drink, and left with his half-eaten hamburger still on the table.
King hung around, questioning the young woman on whether she knew English and telling her repeatedly that she and her mother had broken the law.
Someone in the background yelled, “Go home!”
King’s rhetoric makes establishment Republicans, even in Iowa, cringe. Iowa has several prominent power brokers — including newly elected Senator Joni Ernst and Governor Terry Branstad — and some suggest that Iowa Republican activists are more pragmatic and less combustible than King.
“The presidential candidates ought to be careful to the extent they genuflect at that altar,” said Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer, Republican consultant, and former gubernatorial nominee.
“It’s not a ticket to win the general, clearly. It’s not a ticket to win the nomination. And ultimately, it’s not a ticket, in my opinion, to win Iowa. I don’t know why they would do that, particularly a guy like Christie.
“The knock on moderates is that they’re squishy,” he added.
“The best thing a moderate can do is not show up at King’s event.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.