Steve King's presidential sinkhole: Try to win the Iowa caucuses, lose the general election

All the nuttiest prez hopefuls are in Iowa this weekend. Here's why the viable ones are keeping their distance!

By Jim Newell

Published January 23, 2015 6:53PM (EST)

                              (Reuters/Larry Downing)
(Reuters/Larry Downing)

Imagine traveling back in time to the room where the RNC is putting together its post-2012 election "autopsy."

All of the assembled officials are in agreement that the party's candidates need to stop constantly offending women and minorities. It needs to champion comprehensive immigration reform if it wants to put together a winning coalition in 2016. Heads are all nodding, responsibly: it's time to be a different, more diverse, inclusive party. In 2016, we're not going to make the same early rightward lunge that we did in the 2012 cycle, they're all thinking, and they're all confident in their ability to implement this change in "messaging." The 2012 results are screaming at the party to change if it wants to be nationally competitive again. They probably don't even need to say a word; everyone understands. Right?

Then you, the traveler from two years in the future, burst into the room, holding a Slurpee and/or popcorn, and tell them: Guys, get this -- the first big Iowa cattle call of the 2016 nominating contest will be an event hosted by Congressman Steve King. Not even kidding. Just take whatever you've written of your autopsy, burn it, and hit the bar; there's no point. No point! Trollolololol, troll all day, troll all night... Run a lap around the conference room slappin' fives, and then return to the horrible, horrible future.

Rep. Steve King, unofficial showman-leader of the party's anti-immigration wing who, just this week, added "deportable" (n.) to the political lexicon, is hosting the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines tomorrow in collaboration with Citizens United. Most of the potential presidential candidates from the conservative-movement bracket will speak: Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina. Other featured guests include Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. Chris Christie will be the only real "establishment" candidate speaking. (He has this weird idea in his head that he could be competitive in Iowa.)

What will the topics be? Let your imagination run wild. The rhetoric will probably not be of a nature conducive to a presidential general election, let's just say. Salon repeatedly requested credentials to cover the summit but to no avail. Oh, well.

The evil liberal network MSNBC (or at least its website) was allowed in, however, and snagged an interview with Steve King himself on the plane ride over. Reporter Benjy Sarlin writes that the summit is "a personal triumph for King, whose fortunes within the GOP have risen and fallen and now risen again, mostly in tandem with immigration. He now stands to play a major role vetting the party’s next nominee." It's true, and Steve King loves this. Presidential candidates who make a serious push for Iowa will be stepping into his sinkhole of general election ambitions. It's his crossroads; all who enter Iowa will go through him.

It doesn't have to be this way. There's a way out. There's a simple way to run for the GOP presidential nomination without having to dance before Steve King's judges' panel: Stay away from Iowa.

On the Republican side, in this post-GWB iteration of the Republican party, Iowa zaps a candidate's long-term hopes. The winner will be a social conservative hard-liner who's said all sorts of... off-putting things... to earn a victory in the state. The Iowa winner's fate is to lose in the New Hampshire primary the next week to whomever the eventual nominee will be and then plod along for a few more weeks, maybe picking up a state here or there, before calling it a day.

The temptation for the viable candidates -- the sort of ones who are competitive in Florida and beyond -- is to try to go for the long-sought Early Knockout: solid wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Mitt Romney tried this in both 2008 and 2012. In the former, he ended up losing both. In the latter, he "won" both... until the Iowa Republican Party determined a few weeks later that Rick Santorum had actually won the state's caucuses. Though he won the nomination in 2012, the things Romney had to say in order to persuade Iowa conservatives throughout 2011 turned him off to potential general election voters. There was no point for him to bother in Iowa.

Neither Romney nor Bush are in Iowa this weekend. They're wise enough to know, for now, that it's just not their bag. But we'll see how long they can resist the temptation to win everything, even if it means Steve King-ifying their primary campaigns at the expense of their general election prospects.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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