For 10 years Republican Rep. Steve King has represented a deeply conservative wedge of Iowa, a place where constituents apparently didn’t object to his comparison of the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib to fraternity hazing or his suggestion that an electric fence separate the U.S. from Mexico so that illegal immigrants get the same treatment as wandering livestock.
Now his district has been redrawn and includes more moderate counties. And he is facing a potential opponent in former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, whose husband, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack, remains a popular figure in the state.
“Before he probably didn’t have to show up,” said Doug Gross, a Republican strategist and former gubernatorial candidate in Iowa. “Now he’ll probably have to show up.”
In Iowa and other states where maps are being redrawn, both national parties see opportunities and potential setbacks. Tweaks to districts can put seats that were once locked down for one party firmly in play. Or they can, as is the case of Mr. King, push a conservative congressman into a territory where he will have to recast his message.
When Mr. King was elected in 2002, he was heralded by the conservative National Review as the “Great Right Hope.” He has won the affection of the party’s activist base, but he has hurt his rise in Congress with his occasional off-the-cuff remarks.
Among other controversial statements, Mr. King has said that President Obama “favors the black person” and has compared the quality of life in Washington unfavorably to Baghdad. That type of talk played well in Mr. King’s old district, which voted 54 percent to 44 percent for GOP nominee John McCain over Mr. Obama in 2008.
The new district is less conservative. Mr. McCain beat Mr. Obama by a more slender margin, 50 percent to 48 percent, in the counties that make up the new district. Independents are the plurality in the new district, roughly 34 percent of registered voters.
“This is a very different-looking district than he’s represented before,” said state Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky. “Frankly, it’s hard for me to believe that his particular message is going to play well in places like [traditionally Democratic] Story County as it may in the base he’s currently got.”
Republicans, including Mr. Gross, say that’s wishful thinking.
“It’s still far and away the most Republican district in Iowa,” he said.
But at least some district voters are intrigued by the former first lady’s possible candidacy. Voter Traci Niederjohn said she is excited that Mrs. Vilsack is looking at the 4th District.
“I think it will be cool to have someone that popular here,” the 41-year-old Republican said.
Mr. King is certain of one thing: His new district won’t change how he goes about his business. Nudged away by his own party from the immigration debate, Mr. King has made repealing the health care law his top priority.
“I won’t change,” he said. “I never have thought there are enough people like me here.”