WASHINGTON — When Arthur Jones, a Holocaust denier, ran as a Republican in an Illinois congressional primary, the state Republican Party denounced him as a Nazi. When he won, party leaders quickly vowed to back an independent candidate.
When Paul Nehlen, a white supremacist and anti-Semite, decided to seek the House seat that is being vacated by Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, Republican leaders there said he had “no place in the Republican Party.”
But when Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, retweeted a Nazi sympathizer this week, the House Republican leadership and his fellow Iowa Republicans on Capitol Hill were silent.
Fringe candidates have always run in both parties. Marginalized or ignored, they almost always fade from view. But in the era of President Trump, at a time when white supremacists feel emboldened and an anti-immigrant fervor has gripped the Republican Party, Republican leaders are increasingly forced to make choices about how to react to hateful remarks.
In Mr. King’s case, his eight-term incumbency and his own history of racist comments — he once compared immigrants to dogs, not to mention the time he said they had “calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling marijuana “across the desert” — seem to protect him. People are so used to him being offensive that they just shrug their shoulders and move on.
“We’ve gotten to the point with Congressman King that many people almost expect this sort of behavior out of him,” said Nick Ryan, a Republican strategist in Iowa who has been a vocal critic of Mr. King. “So when he does something that’s inappropriate or outlandish, many people in leadership have chosen to turn their heads the other way, because they don’t know how else to deal with him.”
In a brief hallway interview outside the House chamber, an unapologetic Mr. King said he was unaware that the man he retweeted, Mark Collett, is a well-known British white supremacist who has spoken admiringly of Adolf Hitler and was once featured in a documentary called “Young, Nazi and Proud.”
Mr. King said he simply wanted to publicize an article that Mr. Collett had highlighted from the right-wing website Breitbart News Network, which warned about the dangers of immigration in Europe. The congressman paired his retweet of Mr. Collett with his own comment: “Europe is waking up … Will America … In time?” He later shared the Breitbart article on his Twitter account, with a similar message.
“It’s the message, not the messenger,” Mr. King said in the interview.
Mr. King was not the only Republican making party leaders uncomfortable this week. In Virginia, Corey Stewart, a hard-right fringe candidate who has a history of cozying up to white nationalists, won the Republican primary for Senate on Tuesday. (Mr. Stewart once called Mr. Nehlen “one of my personal heroes,” though he later disavowed him.) Though Mr. Trump congratulated Mr. Stewart, others in the party sounded aghast.
“This is clearly not the Republican Party I once knew, loved and proudly served,” Bill Bolling, Virginia’s former lieutenant governor, said on Twitter. “Every time I think things can’t get worse they do, and there is no end in sight.”
And in Arizona, the Republican Party asked a state representative, David Stringer, to resign after he delivered a speech saying that immigrants pose an “existential threat” that will change the face of Arizona and the country, hampering school integration “because there aren’t enough white kids to go around.”
That sentiment was not much different from Mr. King’s statement in 2017 that he would like to see an “America that’s just so homogeneous that we look a lot the same.”
Yet in Washington, spokeswomen for the three top Republicans in the House — Mr. Ryan; Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader; and Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the Republican whip — did not reply to emails seeking comment about Mr. King. Nor did spokesmen for the senior senator from Iowa, Charles E. Grassley, a Republican, and for other Republicans in the Iowa congressional delegation.
The junior senator from Iowa, Joni Ernst, ducked into an elevator as she was being asked about Mr. King’s tweet. “I didn’t see it, so I can’t comment,” she said, shrugging her shoulders as the elevator doors closed.
Mr. Ryan, it should be noted, has rebuked Mr. King in the past, most recently last year, after the congressman issued a tweet that praised a far-right Dutch leader and declared, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” And when Mr. King made the cantaloupe calves remark, in 2013, Mr. Ryan’s predecessor, John A. Boehner, upbraided the Iowa congressman, calling the comments “deeply offensive and wrong.”
Defenders of Mr. Ryan argued that he cannot be the word police, monitoring every tweet, and they suggested that remaining silent is perhaps the better course, because it deprives racist comments of the oxygen that keeps them circulating.
“Generally politicians aren’t going to issue a rebuke until they have to,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia. “So when it gets a lot of media coverage and the like, they’ll respond. But generally they head for the exits, because you’ve got to work with this guy, and he represents a constituency group, for better or for worse, within the party that can be unforgiving.”
Others say party leaders have an ethical obligation to speak out.
“This shouldn’t be a hard call,” said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington who advised former President George W. Bush and is close to Mr. Ryan.
“If you’re retweeting things from Nazi sympathizers, that should be pretty easy for Republican leaders to condemn,” Mr. Wehner added, “and they should condemn it because it’s a moral responsibility, and there are loyalties that go deeper than party — that’s loyalty to country and loyalty to truth and loyalty to decency.”
One lawmaker who was eager to weigh in was the lone Democrat in the Iowa delegation, Representative David Loebsack.
“Steve King is an embarrassment to the state I proudly call my home,” Mr. Loebsack said in an email. “Iowa has a long history of being a welcoming place and Mr. King’s history of racist remarks turns people away from wanting to live, work and raise a family in our great state.”
Mr. King, 69, represents an extremely conservative pocket of northwest Iowa. In one sense, his party leaders in Washington are punishing him for his incendiary remarks; after 15 years in Congress he has neither a committee chairmanship nor a position in party leadership. But voters in Iowa keep sending him back.
In 2012, Mr. King’s Democratic challenger, Christie Vilsack, a former first lady of Iowa and longtime educator, made an issue of Mr. King’s rhetoric. She lost her race by eight percentage points.
“You have to stand up to bullies,” she said, “and the trouble right now is that people have been elected to office who aren’t standing up to bullies.”
In 2016, he easily beat back a Republican primary challenge from a state senator, Rick Bertrand, who campaigned by trying to cast Mr. King as a “do-nothing congressman.” Mr. King went on to beat his Democratic challenger by 23 points. He is widely expected to win a ninth term this year, although Democrats are hopeful about their candidate, a former professional baseball player named J. D. Scholten.
Mr. Bertrand said Mr. King’s outlandish remarks do hurt his district, by weakening the congressman’s hand in Washington, even if the voters do not push back. “Truthfully, I don’t think anybody really pays attention to what King does,” Mr. Bertrand said. “It’s just kind of white noise.”
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