Steve King under fire after embrace of white supremacy

Steve King

Rep. Steve King’s statements drew denunciations from across the political divide. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) faces a potential censure motion from congressional Democrats and splintering support among Republicans after using racist language in a New York Times interview, questioning when the terms “white nationalist, white supremacist and western civilization” became “offensive.”

The statements drew denunciations from across the political divide, including from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. King later issued a statement rejecting the labels of “white nationalism and white supremacy” and calling himself a “nationalist.” King said the fact that he is “an advocate for Western Civilization values” does not mean he subscribes to the “evil ideology” of white supremacy.

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But King has used language aiming at Latinos, Asians and African-Americans in the past, and many Republicans appear to be done trying to defend him. An Iowa state senator, Randy Feenstra, launched a primary challenge against King this week, arguing that King’s “caustic nature” has left residents of Iowa’s 4th Congressional District “without a seat at the table.” Former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers withdrew support for King at the end of the 2018 elections — when King barely won another term despite his district’s heavily Republican leanings — and new NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) also denounced King’s latest comments.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said his latest comments exhibit a “pattern of behavior” that was worthy of censure. The Ohio Democrat directed his staff to research the process for drafting a censure resolution to condemn King’s actions and worked to gain support for a motion with colleagues during floor votes on Thursday.

“We need to make a statement in the Congress saying that’s unacceptable,” Ryan told POLITICO in an interview Thursday. “That’s not what we teach our kids — that’s not what we want to define our country.”

Ryan also took particular issue with King’s comment that the Democratic Party is “no country for white men.”

“I’m a white Democrat and so are a bunch of others,” Ryan said. “To try to use this as a political wedge, which he’s clearly trying to do, I find repugnant. It’s backwards looking.”

Democrats, including Reps. Filemon Vela of Texas and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, voiced interest in censuring King.

“Oh my goodness,” Ocasio-Cortez said, as a reporter read King’s comments. “It’s extremely disturbing. That’s extremely disturbing. I’m looking forward to having a conversation with Congressman Ryan about what next steps are.”

They were joined by Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash, who called King’s interview an “embrace of racism” on Twitter.

“That’s reasonable under the circumstances,” Amash said of a censure. “It would depend on the language of the censure, but I think it’s a reasonable response.”

Emmer, the new NRCC chair, criticized King’s statements — but he wouldn’t comment about whether the House should take action against the Iowa Republican.

“I disagree with his statements as they’ve been characterized, and as I understand them,” Emmer said to POLITICO. “It’s not helpful.”

NRCC spokesperson Bob Salera later added that the campaign arm doesn’t weigh in on primaries.

“The NRCC does not get involved in primaries and we aren’t going to comment further on a hypothetical election two years away on the eighth day of the new Congress,” Salera said.

“Everything about white supremacy and white nationalism goes against who we are as a nation,” said McCarthy. “Steve’s language is reckless, wrong and has no place in our society.”

One of King’s longtime political allies, the Club for Growth, left the door open to backing King’s primary challenger — though not explicitly over his latest comments.

The anti-tax group has endorsed King in the past and funneled money to his campaigns, but the group’s spokesperson noted that King has voted with the group less often in recent years. In that time, King has become more closely identified with in the United States and Europe.

“It’s fair to say we are certainly watching this race closely due to King’s declining score on our scorecard,” said Club for Growth spokesperson Rachael Slobodien.

Zach Montellaro contributed reporting.