The Republicans Have a Steve King Problem

The congressman's remarks were a head-slapper for a party that has sought this year to mend its frayed relationship with Latinos.

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The House of Representatives had wrapped up its work Thursday afternoon, its members already fleeing for the long weekend, when a Republican nightmare began to unfold. Steve King, a Tea Party firebrand from northwest Iowa, arrived on the floor of the nearly empty House chamber to extend an argument that threatens the party’s critical push to court Hispanic voters.

Earlier this week, the conservative website Newsmax released an interview in which King, a voluble opponent of illegal immigration, said immigrant children were widely used as drug mules. “For everyone who’s a valedictorian,” King argued, “there’s another 100 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.”

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The remarks were a head-slapper for a party that has sought this year to mend its frayed relationship with Latinos. Republican Congressmen pooled their money to rent a bus and throw King under it. The Speaker of the House denounced him. The Majority Leader called his statements “inexcusable.” But the embattled Iowan wasn’t willing to go quietly. Feeling victimized by what he believes to be a capital in the grips of political correctness, he uncorked a defiant speech:

“We must not sacrifice the rule of law on the altar of political expediency,” he argued. He railed against Washington “demagogues” and accused critics of exploiting emotion and ignoring the facts. “I challenge this civilization to be reasonable. Have reason. Be analytical. Be a critical thinker,” he said. The campaign to silence King has only made him shout louder.

King’s naked stereotyping is exactly the kind of kerfuffle the GOP has managed to avoid throughout the contentious immigration debate this year. As that debate has proven, Republican lawmakers remain divided over the merits of rewriting U.S. law to provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living here. But they have taken as gospel the need to change their tone toward the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group. “If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence,” wrote the authors of an RNC-commissioned report released this spring. Even ardent opponents of comprehensive immigration reform have been careful to couch that opposition in respectful terms.

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King’s remarks detonated those efforts, reaffirming the perception that Republicans are hostile to Latinos. Undocumented immigrants showed up at his office clutching cantaloupes. Irritated Republicans blamed the media for harping on a solitary member who has long roamed the fringes of the party. It’s true that King is not exactly a mainstream Republican. Among his crusades, he has opposed anti-dogfighting laws, likened House janitors swapping out incandescent light bulbs to Stasi troops, and suggested Barack Obama’s birth announcement in Hawaiian newspapers could have been placed by telegram from Kenya.

But if the measure is votes and not words, King is more representative of the House Republican immigration position than the party would like to admit. Just last month, 97% of Republicans backed a King amendment that prohibits funding from an Obama administration directive to stop deporting so-called DREAMers. The position rekindled memories of the “self-deportation” policy that earned Mitt Romney just 27% of Hispanic votes.

This is a real problem for Republicans, and not just the House lawmakers who are trying to scuttle reform in the gentlest way possible. Democrats will try to make King a GOP anchor, much like they used Todd Akin to paint the party as hostile to women. Already operatives are pointing to the comment of Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor, that King was one of his “very favorite Congressmen.” Republicans can call King’s comments “hateful” and “ignorant,” as Speaker John Boehner did Thursday. But they can’t shut him up, and they may not be able to erase the perception that he speaks for the rest of the party as well.

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