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Steve King Has Turned Anti-Latino Racism Into an Effective Political Strategy

Getty Images/Darren McCollester

Few people in Congress have worked as hard to kill immigration reform as Representative Steve King. In fact, as Talking Point Memo’s Sahil Kapur details in a new, 3,000 word profile of the Republican from Iowa, King’s career began with his support for making English the state's official language. While in office, King has repeatedly made bigoted comments about undocumented immigrants. But these remarks aren’t gaffes. King’s strategy has a particular purpose—and it has been incredibly successful.

King has learned that the best way to kill popular legislation is to rally the Republican base and scare legislators about a primary challenge. And the best way to rally the base is to play on their fears of immigrants. King has used this strategy repeatedly during his time in the House. Kapur noted three examples in his profile:

1. “Seeking to get back at Durbin, the Iowa Republican gave an interview to the conservative outlet Newsmax in July 2013, declaring, ‘For every [young undocumented immigrant] who's a valedictorian, there's another hundred out there who weigh 130 pounds—and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.


King concedes that the one hundred-to-one claim was an "estimate," but with a mischievous smile, he points out that he succeeded at shifting the immigration debate.”

2. “In March 2006, King claimed the country would be safer without immigrants, arguing that every day, 12 Americans are killed by "murderous illegal aliens" and another 13 by "drunk driving illegals." Like with the "cantaloupes" claim, the numbers were fudged. King borrowed them from a government study but ignored the distinction between lawful and undocumented immigrants as well as data showing first-generation immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans."

3. “Since King came to Congress, his most over-the-top rhetorical outbursts include comparing immigrants to dogs [and] calling illegal immigration a 'slow-motion terrorist attack' on the United States.”

It didn’t matter that these comments—ahem “estimates”—were mostly made up. The right-wing loved it and believed every word. It confirmed their worst fears about undocumented immigrants. To think that King mistakenly revealed his true beliefs in these comments underestimates the Iowa Republican. "I'll say this about Steve: Most of his controversial comments are the kind that you might say are off the cuff. They're not. He’s a bright guy," Brent Siegrest, the former Republican Iowa House Speaker, told Kapur. "He knows what he's doing when he's stirring the pot.”

When immigration reform inevitably becomes an issue again in 2015, King will likely make false, incendiary comments once again. Liberals will condemn them and call the Iowa Republican a racist. But King's words will also incite the far right to call their congressman and demand that they block immigration reform. Maybe, House Speaker John Boehner (and potentially Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) will overrule his conservative members and allow a vote on immigration reform. But in all likelihood, he'll bow to the pressure. King's strategy might just work yet again.

Update: BleedingHeartland points out on Twitter that this isn't the first time King has admitted his provocative comments are well-thought out. Back in 2008, he said as much in a Rotary Club meeting in Sioux City, Iowa.