Young Pretender

Can Steve King Be Dethroned?

The Democratic challenger to the Tea Party favorite is Jim Mowrer, an Army vet who grew up on a local farm. He’s out-fundraising the Republican in Iowa and says he could stage an upset.

11.01.13 11:38 AM ET

Can Tea Party favorite Steve King be defeated in his western Iowa stronghold next year?

King, a six-term Republican congressman, is facing what could be his toughest challenge yet from Jim Mowrer, an Army veteran who was born and raised on a farm in the district. Mowrer was active in Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in 2008 and has already tapped the Vice President to appear at a fundraiser on his behalf. Taking advantage of some of these connections, Mowrer outraised King by over $70,000 and has a $35,000 advantage in cash on hand over the Republican incumbent.

This is surprising because King has built a national reputation, along with colleagues like Louie Gohmert and Michele Bachmann for his strident conservatism and unvarnished way of expressing his views. King has frequently garnered headlines for making controversial statements like  comparing illegal immigrants to dogs and saying, in 2008 that Islamists would view Barack Obama’s election as a victory.

In an interview with the Daily Beast, Mowrer insisted that he was the right fit for the district, compared to King, who he felt “misrepresented” it and didn’t appeal to “those moderate and independent voters” who thought “Washington was broken.” The army veteran and first-time candidate portrayed himself as a pragmatic populist. In contrast to King, a fervent opponent of immigration reform, Mowrer said he supported the bill that was recently passed by the Senate which provides a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens and “restores the rule of law.”

Mowrer also carved a relatively centrist position on a number of other issues. He was in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline “as long as there were offsets in the emissions,” he was against an assault weapons ban but for background checks, and steadfastly against arming the Syrian rebels. However, he also was strongly against indexing Social Security benefits to chained CPI, a proposal offered by President Obama and backed by many deficit hawks, which would reduce the rate at which Social Security payments increased. In fact, Mowrer said he would not vote for any budget, which included chained CPI, citing his childhood growing up on Social Security and survivor benefits while being raised by a single mother.

The district that Mowrer is running in became decidedly more Democratic as a result of the redistricting after the 2010 election. As Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican, notes “there is now solid ground for Democrats in which they can organize.” However, it’s still the most Republican district in the swing state. In 2012, the Democratic candidate was Christie Vilsack, the wife of former governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. She had never lived in the district before and moved there after flirting with runs in two of Iowa’s three other congressional districts. This made it easy for her to be labeled as a carpetbagger. In contrast, Mowrer emphasized that this was “my home. I grew up on a farm here in the district.” He also touted a recent poll, taken at the beginning of the government shutdown by the liberal firm PPP on behalf of MoveOn that had a generic Democrat beating King. “Personally I think I’m a little better than generic” said Mowrer. However, that may not be enough to win a district where Mitt Romney pulled 53% of the vote in 2012.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 21: Jim Mowrer, candidate for IA-04 congressional district, is interviewed in Roll Call's Washington office. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Getty

Jim Mowrer, candidate for IA-04 congressional district, is interviewed on August 21, 2013.

Democratic insiders in the state spoke of Mowrer in almost condescendingly affectionate terms. One described him as a candidate who will “do a good job and won’t be an embarrassment.” Another politely said, “well, it’s a very uphill race.” The general consensus though was because of the Republican lean of the district, particularly in an off-year election, Mowrer had to hope King was caught with the proverbial “dead girl or live boy.”

Although King has maintained a reputation as a talented retail politician with a gift for staying on message in his district, it’s possible that the bomb-throwing side of his persona could appear during the race and cause him to stumble. If that happens, Mowrer is the type of candidate who could take advantage and pull off an upset.  The Democrat remains relatively calm about the race ahead, there’s a lot that’s out of his control. He likened the circumstances to when he served in Iraq “and the mortars were falling.” You just have to get down, he said. “It is what it is.”