June 6, 2016

Rick Bertrand, in a furious challenge to incumbency’s isolating and ego-inflating effects, landed bruising rhetorical punches on veteran U.S. Rep. Steve King during a GOP congressional primary debate in Sioux City Friday.

Boxing from the same corner of the ideological ring as cultural and economic conservatives, Bertrand and King agreed on foundational issues for western Iowa Republicans.

“He’s good on life, he’s good on guns,” Bertrand said of King on abortion and the Second Amendment. Both men oppose abortion in virtually all circumstances and tout voting records in line with leading gun-rights groups. They also both defend construction of a wall on the Mexican border.

The defining question, Bertrand contended in Eppley Auditorium on Morningside College’s campus, boils down to a bread-aisle or bakery choice: fresh or stale?

“This congressman has run his course,” Bertrand said. “That’s why he runs to microphones.”

King, 67, a firebrand of the right with a national talk-radio and cable-TV profile and a catalog of incendiary remarks, is seeking an eighth, two-year term in Congress. Bertrand, 46, says all those years in Washington have made King tone deaf to the basics of representing one of the nation’s leading agricultural districts.

“Why do we think if we send the same people back, we’re going to get a different result?” Bertrand said.

A state legislator from Sioux City, Bertrand has limited himself to two terms in the Iowa Senate. Members of Congress should serve no longer than five, two-year terms, he says, pledging to go to Washington and come home after a decade or less.

“Politically, I ran on term limits,” Bertrand said. “I believe in term limits.”

King’s response: to compare himself to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

“We should look at Chuck Grassley and see how he’s doing,” King said.

Grassley, 82, first elected to the Iowa Legislature during the Eisenhower administration (1958), has served in the U.S. Senate since 1981. That’s an active political life of nearly 60 years collecting government paychecks and benefits.

“The difference is Chuck Grassley is relevant,” Bertrand observed, noting that Grassley is an effective champion for agriculture.

Here’s one of thickest strands in Bertrand’s case against King: Why is the congressman not the chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee? That job is now held by Texas Republican Mike Conaway, who came to Congress after King.

King explained that the Texan leapfrogged him to the influential post because King lost favor with former House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. Those “disagreements” with Boehner, King says, prevented as ascent that would have been a boon for Iowa’s small towns and farms.

Only minutes before criticizing Boehner, a fellow Republican, King bragged of being buddies with a well-known liberal gadfly in Congress.

“Dennis Kucinich was my best Democratic friend,” King said of the former Ohio liberal congressman.

Being friendly with which one of those Ohioans would have been better for Iowa?

Bertrand said conservatives can stick to their principles while still fighting for their districts. He says he’ll vote like King on key issues, but spend more time on jobs and business issues, and in developing personal and professional connections that lead to the chairmanship or ranking positions on the Agriculture Committee.

“Be nice, be personable, go out there and hang out with people,” Bertrand said.

Making the case for his effectiveness, King highlighted an earmark (specifically directed federal funding) he says he obtained for regulatory and planning work that led to the four-laning of part of Highway 20 in western Iowa.

“My name is on the earmark,” King said.

Fair enough. But conservatives like King killed earmarks and the projects they bring to rural America.

In one of his more stinging lines of the night, Bertrand said that while campaigning in the 39-county sweep of geography that is Iowa’s 4th District, he’s learned that many people on the eastern side of the King-represented territory, in places like Mason City and Chickasaw County, still think Tom Latham (a former congressman) is representing them.

King’s been more concerned about a “personal agenda” that includes the backing of Renewable Fuel Standard detractor Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential candidate, than learning what’s happening on Main Streets and farms, Bertrand said.

Cruz sponsored legislation as a senator from oil-rich Texas that would have killed the Iowa-commodity-boosting Renewable Fuel Standard. But King supported Cruz’s White House ambitions over the objections of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and a roll call of key farm interests.

“Ted Cruz and I disagree on the RFS,” King said, insisting that his plan all along has been to talk Cruz out of deep-sixing the RFS if the Texan were to win the presidency.

King’s support of Cruz led to one of the better closing arguments you’ll hear in a debate.

On the night of the Iowa caucuses, King falsely told his social-media followers Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson — a popular figure who had advertised heavily in slices of western Iowa, including Carroll and Greene counties — was dropping out of the race.

“I’ve learned from the Ben Carson people … If anyone on Tuesday gets a text or a tweet from the congressman that says I’m dropping out on Tuesday, please disregard it,” Bertrand said.