Is Republican Rep. Steve King, Congress' most vitriolic lawmaker, running for president? Of course he maybe is!
A new round of rumors has broken out after CNN reported that the anti-amnesty crusader will travel to the early primary state of South Carolina, leading to headlines asking if King is laying the groundwork for a 2016 White House bid. King is from Iowa, so he's already got one of the early states covered. And in South Carolina he'll meet with influential conservative leaders and grass-roots activists -- exactly the kind of thing one would do if he were running for president.
"When they call and ask me to [set up a meeting with local activists], my thought is maybe they are thinking about a presidential run," Lin Bennett, a vice chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, told CNN's Peter Hamby.
Steve King will never be president. He's at odds with Republican leaders, despised by Democrats and Hispanics, too conservative and racist for independents, and his favorability rating is 15 points underwater in his home state, where his own constituents are at odds with him on his signature issue, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And unlike Mitt Romney's Massachusetts, Iowa happens to be crucial for both the primary and general election campaigns. King decided earlier this year that he couldn't win a Senate seat from the state and dropped out.
But the question isn't why would Steve King run for president, but why wouldn't he? Winning is only one of several reasons someone might choose to run for president, and having zero chance of making it to the White House has never stopped candidates in the past.
Flirtation with a run is a surefire way for a politician to raise his or her national profile, influence the conversation, raise big bucks, maybe even land a book deal. If you're a potential candidate, cameras will suddenly follow you wherever you go and you'll be swarmed by reporters who hang on your every word and official action. Everything you do will feel more important as it's refracted through the lens of 2016. But the moment you announce you're not considering a bid after all, all that goes away and you go back to being one of 435, or one governor out of 50.
Actually going through with a run is riskier, but it keeps your name in the fire for longer and can have bigger payoffs. As long as you don't grope your employees and hilariously forget about the existence of the war in Libya, or (allegedly) violate campaign finance laws, there is basically no downside and huge potential upside. Rick Santorum went from being a washed-up senator with a Google problem to someone who matters on the social conservative right. Same for Mike Huckabee. Newt Gingrich was a disgraced former speaker loitering around zoos -- and now has his own show on CNN. Steve King starts off from a sturdier platform than either of them.
And King is the perfect candidate for the postmodern conservative movement that cares only about speaking to itself. It doesn't matter that Democrats loathe him -- he already has a passionate national following and proven fundraising abilities and will be well positioned for the GOP primary's race to the right. And the collapse of the Michele Bachmann empire leaves a vacuum for King to step right into as de facto national Tea Party leader, which he's done by spearheading the campaign against comprehensive immigration reform. Bachmann has even suggested that he run in the past.
King understands this dynamic, dropping subtle hints that are almost begging the media to gin up some "will he run?" headlines. When Sean Hannity made a passing reference to the upcoming presidential race in late 2010, King replied with a grin, "I look forward to seeing you in Iowa."
"2012 is just around the corner and your name's been tossed in there," Fox's Uma Pemmaraju said to King in 2010. "Any thoughts, any decisions?"
"I have not put pieces in place to do that, and I'm sure of only two things and those are: A groundswell and a calling," King said, decidedly not ruling it out.