Steve King, a five-term Iowa congressman with all the benefits of incumbency, is in a toss-up race in a Republican district against an eighth-grade schoolteacher terrified of public speaking.
There are two reasons for the close contest against his Democratic opponent: The teacher is Christie Vilsack, Iowa’s former first lady and wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; and King, an anti-tax Tea Party favorite, has made a name for himself in the House by adopting extreme positions in opposing abortion rights and by likening immigrants to bird dogs.
Vilsack’s political pedigree comes with full campaign coffers and on-the-ground support from former President Bill Clinton, who is headlining a rally for her in Sioux City today.
“The race is winnable for Christie Vilsack. That is huge all by itself,” said Ann Selzer, a pollster and president of Des Moines-based Selzer & Company. “Bill Clinton wouldn’t waste his time. They think that it’s contested.”
The race is taking place in a redrawn district where a victory may depend on King’s ability to woo independents. Republican leaders have stepped in to protect King’s seat in a fight replicated in districts in Illinois, Wisconsin and Colorado where Tea Party-backed incumbents face competitive challenges.
“It is a test of whether candidate incumbents who are identified with the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party are losing some of their support,” said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University in Ames. “Even Republicans and certainly independents are now alarmed that Tea Party-type Republicans are not as willing to compromise and cut deals, that they are very ideological.”
King, 63, was the voice of the Tea Party anger before there was an organized movement, Schmidt said in a telephone interview. King is a founding member of the House’s Tea Party caucus.
He has garnered national headlines for comparing the immigration process to choosing “the pick of the litter” and suggested an electric fence to deter illegal immigrants, saying on the House floor that “we do this to livestock all the time.”
King has sided with Representative Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican running for the U.S. Senate, after his comment that “legitimate rape” rarely leads to pregnancy and shouldn’t be a reason for abortion rights.
While he defended Akin’s record as a lawmaker, King said he “categorically” rejects “the so-called medical theory” reflected in Akin’s statement.
“No one has a stronger pro-life record than I do,” King said in a statement. “I believe sexual assault is a disgusting, violent crime and those who commit these terrible acts should be severely punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
King has acquired “poster-boy” status for his “hard edge” on illegal immigration and anti-abortion rights, and his re-election race may become a bellwether for such issues that the Republican Party is “struggling with,” Schmidt said.
The race is rated as a toss-up by the website RealClearPolitics. If Vilsack wins, she would be the first woman to be elected to Congress from Iowa.
“We’re trying to make history here,” Vilsack said in an Oct. 10 interview at a coffee shop in Sioux City the day after the debate with King.
Outside groups and congressional campaign committees have spent at least $2.5 million on the race, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks political money.
Even with her national profile and her husband by her side, Vilsack wants to make the race about local issues. She has portrayed King as holding extreme views that don’t represent Iowans. “It embarrasses us because we are not like that in Iowa,” Vilsack said in an interview.
King said Vilsack is running a “negative personal attack campaign,” and “probably the most negative assault ever on a sitting member of Congress in the state.”
King said he expected Vilsack would run against him once his district was redrawn. The new fourth district, in northwest Iowa, was Vilsack’s choice because she didn’t want to run against Democrats in the two other districts where she had lived, he said.
He said he expects the race to be close because of Vilsack’s ability to raise money outside the district and the state.
“I’ve been through a lot of tests,” King said, recalling that he started his construction business with a “negative net worth” and the company, now owned by his eldest son, is in its 38th year. King has set out to prove that he can raise more money from voters in the district. He’s been traveling the state in his tan 2005 GMC Yukon, which is big enough to fit his signs, he said in an interview at his campaign office in a strip shopping center in Sioux City.
Iowa’s fourth congressional district has 180,512 registered Republicans, 128,970 Democrats and 171,114 independents, according to the most recent data from the Iowa secretary of state’s website.
“It will be the independents that end up deciding the race,” said Dennis Ryan, the treasurer of the district’s Democratic Party. “This is the first time that he’s got a real serious challenge because of the redistricting.”
Still, King has another home-turf advantage: a record of constituent service that is recognized even by some Democrats.
“Regardless of party, Steve King was always willing to work with a constituent,” said Gregg Connell, a Democrat and the former mayor of Shenandoah in King’s former district. “He is very personable, very committed, believes in the issues that he supports but he always had time for me as a small-town mayor.”
Vilsack, who had already traveled the state as first lady, said grassroots campaigning is “what I do best.” She said she enjoys visiting a grocery-store deli counter and usually gets invited to a table of people having their morning coffee. “I call that coffee-shopping,” she says, adding that she’s allowed to invent words because she’s an English teacher.
“I see the job very locally,” she said.
Vilsack also has a national profile: she endorsed Senator John Kerry for president in 2004 and delivered a prime-time speech at the Democratic convention that year before Barack Obama’s headline speech. The Vilsacks also received advice from the Clintons during their time as Iowa’s first Democratic family in more than three decades. Now, Clinton is helping out again.
Though she has debated King several times, Vilsack said she had to overcome nervousness about speaking in front of crowds. She recalled that her fifth-grade teacher made her practice belting out her book reports because she was so soft-spoken.
“Believe me, that 10-year-old girl shows up every time I have to go up there on the stage and have to debate,” she said.
Vilsack is the only Democratic opponent King agreed to debate. “To me, it is an indication that he really thinks he needs to pump up his visibility,” Schmidt said.