On Thursday, State Senator Rick Bertrand made it official, announcing that he’s challenging Republican Congressman Steve King in the 4th Congressional District primary.
High profile primary challenges against incumbents are rare occurrences in Iowa, especially one challenging a conservative stalwart in the most conservative district in the state. Not only is King universally known, but Bertrand is also attempting to oust a sitting Congressman in a campaign that will last just 82 days.
The word daunting just doesn’t quite seem to describe the task Bertrand has chosen to take on. Some may believe it will be impossible for Bertrand to be successful in this endeavor. That sort of thinking is justified, but as is the case with most things in life, where there is great risk, there is also great reward.
King’s strengths are well known. He’s intelligent. He has developed a real connection with the grassroots of the Republican Party because he’s willing to fight the good fight and champion core issues. King has also has a history of being a good campaigner, the type that goes everywhere and does everything.
King’s weaknesses are equally known. While smart, his choice of words or use of certain analogies repeatedly get him in trouble with the media. He’s a notoriously poor fundraiser. Despite being a 14-year incumbent, King has never figured out how to keep his campaign coffers full which, at times, makes him a charity case but also means that he’s not able to help the effort to expand the Republican majority in the U.S. House.
Since redistricting in 2012, King’s Democrat opponents have raised more money than he has for his campaigns. That doesn’t bother King one bit. He wears the fact that he has won despite being outspent as a badge of honor. King will likely be outraised in the abbreviated primary against Bertrand. At the end of 2015, King reported having just $118,000 in the bank. Even without a primary challenger until now, King has spent more money than he has taken in during the current election cycle.
While Republican activists may struggle with Bertrand’s decision to run against an incumbent congressman, the hill he now has to climb is not insurmountable. There has always been a rub between King and the business community is Sioux City, which is something Bertrand will have to exploit if he is to be successful. Furthermore, the current configuration of the fourth district provides Bertrand opportunity to stake out territory as there are more counties in the fourth district that were represented by Tom Latham than King before redistricting.
In some ways, trying to knock of King in a primary may be easier than waiting and running once King vacates the seat. There are plenty of Republicans who are eager to run for the seat, which would make for a costly and crowded primary. While challenging an incumbent will not make him popular with some people, he is the lone alternative to King. With no other Republican primaries taking place, it’s a rather simple game – whoever turns out the most people to vote wins. Bertrand may benefit from some Democrats and independents who do not like King playing in the Republican primary.
Besides fundraising, another King liability is message discipline. Just look at the press release his campaign sent out Thursday evening. It was petty and defensive. It said nothing of what he hopes to accomplish for the fourth district, and instead read like a “how dare they challenge me” letter.
King’s release also included the following paragraph.
Over the last few weeks, calls came from a surprisingly large number of potential candidates who were asked to challenge me in a primary by a couple of wealthy and petulant establishment Republicans who think they should own a Congressman. In every case but one, the answer was a resounding ‘No.’
What King fails to mention is that those “petulant establishment Republicans” are also constituents who donated to his campaign and organized fundraising events for him in his previous two campaigns. King is obviously bitter and distracted by a couple of individuals instead of his actual opponent.
King would be wise to rise above petty bickering, but he chose to close out his press release with the following snide sentence. “I regret the impending needless and blatant dishonesty which will surely come from my opposition.” Again, how dare someone challenge The King?
Bertrand is a talented politician, and it is a mistake to not take him seriously. He not only was able to win a tough State Senate District in 2010, but he was able to also get re-elected. I don’t know really know Bertrand all that well, but he’s impressive on the stump and meets people well. His business background should also be a benefit.
At his announcement on Thursday, Bertrand painted a positive vision for his campaign and the fourth district. Bertrand believes that the Highway 20 expansion, which is being completed in large part because of the gas tax increase that he supported, makes the district the state’s new economic frontier.
As for his challenge to King, Bertrand told the Sioux City Journal, “The District needs a more effective congressman to push for changes required to maximize that growth.” He added, “I am not going in there to be a national figure. I am going to be likable and effective.” Over the past 14 years, Bertrand believes that King has become institutionalized.
Even though King has led the vocal opposition in Washington during his time there, he’s not been able to land key leadership positions in the house, mainly because of his poor relationship with leadership. This sounds like it will be the main argument put forth by Bertrand’s campaign. There have been numerous occasions where King was in line to chair a committee, only to be passed up. The most recent example was the influential Ag Committee, which King lost to Texas Congressman Mike Conaway. Unlike King, Conaway raised big money to help the GOP effort in the 2014 mid-term elections.
Presidential politics also helped pave the way for Bertrand’s decision to primary King. King is one of Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s national campaign chairmen. Presidential campaigns cause people to splinter in different groups, and with a field of 17 candidates, people fell into a number of different camps. King’s endorsement of Cruz came as no surprise, but it did pit him against the ethanol industry, which was already weary of the freshman Senator from Texas because one of the first pieces of legislation Cruz pushed was a repeal of the Renewable Fuels Standard.
Despite being a staunch support of the RFS, King repeatedly sang Cruz’s praises and helped convince Iowa voters that a Cruz presidency would be good for the ethanol industry. Ironically, after the campaign left Iowa, Cruz now makes a point in election night speeches and on national debate stages to tell people how he took on the ethanol industry in Iowa and won. Most people can understand why members of Iowa’s renewable fuels industry are a little upset with King.
This race is sure to be in the political spotlight from now until primary day on the first Tuesday in June. If King’s press release is any indication, this is going to be a bitter battle.