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‘Indefensible.’ Why Republicans Finally Condemned Steve King

5 minute read

For anyone who has paid attention to Rep. Steve King’s career, it was hardly shocking that he would be quoted wondering when “white supremacy” became offensive. What happened next has been a bit of a surprise.

After years of tolerating the Iowa Republican’s controversial comments on immigration and diversity, his fellow GOP lawmakers came out strongly against him, and the consequences are piling up.

“There is no room for white supremacy,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the top Republican in the House. And Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican, suggested King resign. “I think he should find another line of work,” she said.

On Monday, party leaders booted him from the agriculture and judiciary committees, significantly curbing his influence in Congress. On Tuesday, his colleagues voted to condemn his views — with the only abstention coming from a lawmaker who felt the resolution wasn’t tough enough. (King himself even voted for the rebuke.) Meantime, the editorial boards of two major newspapers in Iowa — the Des Moines Register and the Sioux City Journal — called for him to resign.

Even the Senate got involved. Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst condemned the remarks, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott wrote in an op-ed that his views should be “ridiculed at every turn possible,” and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney suggested he resign. “It may surprise you to know that I haven’t been following every utterance of Congressman King,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “But I certainly followed this one. And I think the House Republican Conference is right.”

The collapse of Republican support is at once stunning and entirely predictable. King had long been protected by an accident of geography. With deep support in his corner of Iowa, he had long been courted by members of Congress who were either running for president or wanted to leave open the possibility. With an eye already on 2020, President Donald Trump feigned ignorance when asked about the comments this week.

But with a record-setting partial government shutdown dragging on over a fight about a border wall with Mexico, King’s remarks could not have been more poorly timed. His colleagues could not afford to look the other way.

Some GOP insiders argued that the rebuke of King could be seen as a warning shot to Trump to back off his demands for a wall and his pursuit of a hard-liner stance on immigration. By that thinking, the rejection of King’s remarks may open the door to re-opening the government at the expense of ditching that dreams of a border wall.

Still, there was an overwhelming sense of cynicism in GOP corners that the move was to save face. With the question of immigration driving the shutdown, it is fresh on voters’ mind — much as it was in November, when voters flipped the House into Democrats’ hands and rejected Trump’s last-minute pitch on the horrors of immigrant caravans. The country’s demographics are changing and many inside the GOP worry that its perceived intolerance toward minorities and immigrants will doom it electorally within a generation.

“King’s rhetoric isn’t new. He’s just been louder than ever because he’s got Trump’s base backing him up,” one former GOP aide in the Senate said. “Until I see the President and those closest to him truly denounce King, they’re not fooling anyone into thinking that this isn’t where the majority of today’s GOP members stand.”

After all, King’s was an in-demand endorsement during the 2016 caucuses in Iowa — despite a record that included statements saying immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes” were hauling drugs across the border. He also proposed in 2006 an electrified border wall and suggested Americans were being killed by immigrants in the country illegally “a slow-motion Holocaust.” He has sponsored legislation to make English the official language of the United States. Still, Sen. Ted Cruz won King’s endorsement in 2016, named him a national co-chairman of the campaign and went on to win Iowa’s caucuses.

But even Cruz had changed his tune this week.

“The latest comments were indefensible,” Cruz told TIME on Tuesday. “Under no reasonable analysis is there any possible defense of white nationalism and white supremacy. They are evil, bigoted philosophies and we should be united in denouncing them as such.”

Finally, there’s the pragmatic view. Trump is expected to run for President in 2020, meaning the next time King’s endorsement will matter in Iowa’s caucuses will be, at the earliest, 2024. King would be 74 at the time and maybe out of office, perhaps at the hand of a Washington-recruited state lawmaker who is expected to have a strong showing against King in his primary. King won his most recent term with just 50% of the vote and national Democrats have made it a target.

At the same time, national Republicans, who cut off King’s funding in 2018, are not eager to waste cash buying ads for him in 2020. Sending him into exile now may be worth more than the seat itself, especially with the Republicans stuck in the minority until at least 2021. The move may signal that, finally, the Republican Party is ready to condemn these kinds of statements more regularly, even if only for self-interested reasons.

There is a limit. While King faced universal condemnation this week, Republicans in Congress continue to look the other way when Trump heads into similar rhetorical territory. But as King’s swift collapse showed, that tolerance may only last as long as the president is politically popular.

With reporting by Alana Abramson

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com