WASHINGTON— For 10 years Rep. Steve King has represented a deeply conservative wedge of Iowa, a place where constituents apparently didn't object to his comparison of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib to fraternity hazing or his suggestion that an electric fence separate the U.S. from Mexico so that illegal immigrants get the same treatment as wandering livestock.
Now his district has been redrawn and includes more moderate counties. And he is facing a potential opponent in former Iowa first lady Christy Vilsack, whose husband, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, remains a popular figure in the state.
"Before he probably didn't have to show up," said Doug Gross, a Republican strategist and former gubernatorial candidate in Iowa. "Now he'll probably have to show up."
In Iowa and other states where maps are being redrawn, such as Illinois and Texas, both national parties see opportunities and potential setbacks. Tweaks to districts can put seats that were once locked down for one party firmly in play. Or they can, as is the case of King, push a conservative congressman to a territory where he'll have to retest his message.
When King was elected in 2002, he was heralded by the conservative National Review as the "Great Right Hope." He has won the love of the party's activist base, but he has hurt his rise in congressional leadership and committee chairman posts with his off-the-cuff remarks.
Among other controversial statements: King has said that President Barack Obama "favors the black person," and has compared the quality of life in Washington unfavorably to Baghdad. He also called illegal immigration a "slow-moving terrorist attack."
That type of talk played well in King's old district, which voted 54 percent to 44 percent for GOP nominee John McCain over Obama in 2008.
The new district is less conservative. McCain beat Obama by a more slender margin, 50 to 48, in the counties that make up the new district. Independents are the plurality in the new district, roughly 34 percent of registered voters. Republicans comprise 33 percent of voters and Democrats approximately 25 percent of the electorate.
"This is a very different-looking district than he's represented before," said state Democratic Party chairwoman Sue Dvorsky. "Frankly, it's hard for me to believe that his particular message is going to play well in places like (traditionally Democratic) Story County as it may in the base he's currently got."
The new portions of the district are largely remnants of the seat held by Republican Rep. Tom Latham for a decade. Latham, who also will have to run in a new district, is a more traditional Republican.
"Congressman King and Congressman Latham are pretty iconic representations of two wings of the Republican Party," Dvorsky said. "I don't believe that the independent voters that may have voted for Latham are in Steve King's wheel house. Then there's the fact that the incredibly effective Mrs. Vilsack is headed toward an announcement."
Republicans, including Gross, say that's wishful thinking.
"It's still far and away the most Republican district in Iowa," Gross said.
King says he's comfortable and his past comments won't affect his race. He also notes his father was once mayor of a town in the district and that "in the '50s I ate my first McDonald's hamburger" in Mason City, one of the largest cities in his new district.
"The things I have said, they were true and factual," he said in an interview in his Washington office, tapping a black cowboy boot. "I don't need to apologize for the truth."
King's outspokenness has always been a part of his appeal to voters and there are certainly potential constituents in the new 4th District who enjoy it. Greg Hager of Boone County voted for Latham before and will likely support King in the next election.
"He doesn't pull any punches, he tells you what he thinks," said Hager, a registered Republican. Of Vilsack, Hager added, "She's a decent person, but I don't think she's qualified."
Other voters are intrigued by Vilsack's presence. Traci Niederjohn said she voted for Latham and will miss him. But she said she is excited that Vilsack is looking at the 4th District.
"I think it will be cool to have someone that popular here," the 41-year-old Republican said, referring to Vilsack. "I'd go hear her speak to see what she has to say. It will be interesting to listen to her."
King is certain of one thing: His new district won't change how he goes about his business. Nudged away by his own party from the immigration debate, King has made repealing the health care law his top priority.
"I won't change," he said. "I never have thought there are enough people like me here."
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