DES MOINES, Iowa — By election results, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has been immune to voter anger over his tongue.
Iowa Democrats hope his latest remark about cantaloupe-legged immigrant drug mules turns off people at home who might be growing weary of his perceived grandstanding, especially on an issue where polling indicates his district is not with him.
But even as condemnation from top House Republican leaders grew Thursday — and Iowa's titular GOP establishment voice, Gov. Terry Branstad, added his own criticism — conservatives in northwest Iowa vowed to stand by their man.
"King getting attacked by the ruling elite and the media is any day ending in 'Y.' It's nothing new to 4th District Republicans," said Chad Steenhoek, a state central committee member from Story County.
Politics watchers predict that King will remain nearly invincible, suggesting he'd basically have to commit a felony or immoral act to run any risk of ouster in the 4th District, the heart of Iowa's conservative base.
"Even though the comments are racist in as much as he apparently assumes the vast majority of Hispanic immigrants are inherently criminal, voters here are used to these kinds of comments from King, and probably wouldn't recoil unless he were to begin using racial epithets — which he has the sense not to," said David Wiltse, an assistant professor of political scienceat Briar Cliff University in Sioux City.
House Speaker John Boehner chose to lead off his weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday by scolding King, for the second time this week, for saying many of the youthful immigrants who enter the country illegally are drug traffickers.
"I want to be clear there's no place in this debate for hateful or ignorant comments from elected officials," Boehner said.
"Earlier this week, Rep. Steve King made comments that were I think deeply offensive and wrong," Boehner said. "What he said does not reflect the values of the American people or the Republican party. We all need to do our work in a constructive, open and respectful way."
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It's unusual for House leaders to publicly rebuke a fellow Republican like that, said several longtime Iowa politics watchers.
They said they can't recall another Iowan in Congress getting such a direct comeuppance.
But Boehner didn't seem willing to levy sanctions against King.
When a reporter asked whether King would be removed from the Judiciary Committee, Boehner interrupted: "I think I've made myself very clear when it comes to Mr. King."
Boehner on Tuesday evening had called King's comments "wrong." Other congressional Republicans, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have joined the tongue-lashing.
Conservatives slam House leaders
But Iowa conservatives find the leaders' motives suspect, arguing Thursday that their protests are oversensitivity on the immigration issue more than anything.
"The reason they lashed out at him is because they're weak leaders and they want to get through this amnesty debate, and if you can muzzle Steve King, that debate becomes a lot easier," said Chuck Laudner, a GOP activist and King's former district director.
Boehner and other leaders have said they favor a pathway to citizenship for children who entered the country illegally.
Some Republicans are also concerned about any comments from conservatives that would further damage an already tarnished GOP brand with Hispanics, the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the country.
Branstad avoided questions from The Des Moines Register on Wednesday about King's remarks, saying, "I am not going to get involved in that whatsoever."
But on Thursday, his spokesman, Tim Albrecht, responded to a request for comment with a written statement.
"Governor Branstad has great respect for Congressman King and considers him a friend, however the governor does not agree with the congressman's remarks," Albrecht said. "Governor Branstad believes our bipartisan work together in Des Moines can serve as an example to D.C., and hopes all parties will come together to solve the immigration challenge in a bipartisan way."
Almost all other GOP leaders contacted by The Register on Thursday defended King — and ridiculed Boehner.
Jake Dagel, 21-year-old social conservative activist from Sheldon, said he thinks many fellow Republicans "don't see Speaker Boehner as a leader of the Republican party." So Boehner's criticism is "a little ridiculous."
Cerro Gordo County GOP Chairman Gabe Haugland agrees with King's overarching message that liberals "paint immigrant children in a light that's extremely favorable to amnesty. Steve's point is that they're not all valedictorians."
Haugland pointed to an Associated Press story he'd read in March 2012 about Mexican drug cartels using children as drug mules.
The article cites the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement saying that the number of youths ages 14 to 18 caught trying to cross the border between Tijuana and San Diego to sell drugs had grown tenfold from 2008 to 2011.
"When the Huffington Post (posted) that article, no one was calling it racist," Haugland said.
Critics: King wrong on facts
Critics on Thursday countered King on his facts, saying neither the DREAM Act nor its alternatives would legalize drug mules along with valedictorians. The Senate proposal says immigrants would need to maintain clean criminal records — no felony convictions, no more than three misdemeanor convictions and no unlawful voting — to qualify for legal status.
"Anyone with a criminal record which would involve a felony would be removed," said Joe Henry, state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens.
King clearly doesn't view this as a slip-up. Rather than backpedaling or avoiding questions about it, he has said he stands by his words.
In a speech on the floor of the House on Thursday, he called for compassion for immigrants, but added: "We must not sacrifice the rule of law on the altar of political expediency."
The 4th District is persistently non-competitive, but a recent poll from the conservative American Action Network showed King is out of step with his district on a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"Behaviorally, Mr. King maneuvers as if the 4th District is some sort of 'no consequence zone,'" said Bradley Best, an associate professor of political science at Buena Vista University. "Yet, is he politically or electorally invincible? History — both recent and not-so-recent — would counsel more caution than he is demonstrating."
Politics watchers view King and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., as birds of a feather who occasionally are accused of saying illogical or inflammatory things that hurt conservative causes. Each represents the most conservative district in the state.
Former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack's loss to King last fall by 8 percentage points, despite raising big money, was a setback for Iowa Democrats hoping to unseat him. They considered her to be far and away the best candidate ever to take him on.
Democrats hope that King, like Bachmann, will push too far, and the same hubris that has allowed his controversial remarks will also bring him down. Bachmann has chosen not to seek re-election in 2014.