Feenstra, 52, represents the solid-red northwest corner of Iowa, the most Republican-heavy district in the state. The conservative, evangelical-heavy region is key to landing a top spot in the Iowa caucuses, and Iowa itself is a launchpad for the rest of the presidential campaign. In other words, with nearly a third of the state’s active Republican voters in the district, the area is a magnet for presidential hopefuls or Iowa candidates looking to run statewide.
Feenstra says he will have an open door to anyone who wants to visit Iowa.
“I’m just going to be the ambassador to everybody,” Feenstra said about the role he’s assumed. “To me, it is a small area, but it is the pulse of Iowa … That is why I think a lot of candidates like to come through the area.”
Pence and the others who have already paid Feenstra visits will soon have more company. Feenstra’s office has also invited former President Donald Trump and talked about potential visits with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who won the Iowa caucuses in 2016, as well as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Washington Examiner first reported those invites.
Feenstra’s fast rise as a potential Iowa kingmaker comes less than a year after he unseated his district’s old Republican representative: Steve King, a sought-after endorser in past Iowa caucuses who lost his seat after a string of increasingly provocative and racist statements stirred national backlash.
When King defended the terms “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” during a New York Times interview in early 2019, it was the final straw for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other GOP leaders who moved to strip King of his committee assignments.
Feenstra had already entered the race against King just a day before his infamous comments. He ended up trouncing the 18-year incumbent by 10 percentage points in the GOP primary before gliding to general election victory.
In an interview, McCarthy said that while King was using his position to gain acclaim and “notoriety” for himself, Feenstra was already serving a party-building role.
“I actually think [Feenstra] will help the party,” McCarthy said.
While presidential candidates including Cruz, who won King’s endorsement, worked diligently to get on the former representative’s good side ahead of the 2016 caucuses, others like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) felt uncomfortable courting a man notorious for race-baiting comments. This time around, no one sees Feenstra as a liability who will come back to haunt presidential candidates.
“I think, yes, they would want to be seen with Randy Feenstra,” said Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of the religious organization The Family Leader.
Community leaders who carry sway in the district, like Vander Plaats, also decided to ditch King and back Feenstra in 2020. Despite describing King as a “long-term friend,” Vander Plaats said he wanted a representative who would have a seat at the table.
“I just thought the 4th District needed a fresh voice that was going to be heard in Washington, D.C.,” said Vander Plaats.
Feenstra’s family picnic with Pence was held in a classic car museum owned by a prominent Iowa donor, whose classic vintage corvette coupes and Ford Model A roadsters were sprinkled throughout the event space. It also featured dozens of tables covered in red checkered tablecloths and vintage neon signs lighting up the walls. The crowd received Pence warmly, despite his fall from Trump’s good graces.
Other Iowa Republicans spoke at the event, including freshman Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks — who describes Feenstra as a “phenomenal legislator” — and Sen. Joni Ernst.
While Pence and others have organized their Iowa visits around efforts to win back the House and Senate majorities, that has often gone hand-in-hand with laying caucus groundwork in the state, long before the launch of an official presidential campaign. If and when Republicans do start those campaigns, they’ll want to be well-prepared in Feenstra’s district in particular. Sioux County, for example, is the most Republican county in the state and has been a bellwether in five of the last six GOP presidential caucuses.
“Randy is a significant ambassador for Republicans because they’ll all want the support of the people in that area,” said Ernst, who served in the Iowa state Senate with Feenstra.
“What you see is that part of northwest Iowa which is highly concentrated with Republicans pulling candidates over the line. If you can get a majority of people in northwest Iowa supporting you, you have the opportunity to place very high in a presidential caucus,” Ernst continued.
Feenstra got his start in public life after being approached at a gas station. He had been traveling six days a week as the head of sales for Foreign Candy Company in Iowa, which sells Black Forest gummy bears and Warheads sour candy. But with multiple young children, he was hoping to find a job that would mean staying closer to home.
Denny Wright — the then-mayor of Hull, Iowa, Feenstra’s hometown — asked Feenstra at the gas pumps whether he would consider serving as city administrator.
Feenstra said he initially dismissed the idea, but he eventually decided to give it a go. He would later enter elected offices and work his way to the state Senate, where he served for three terms, including chairing the influential Ways and Means Committee where he wrote and Republicans passed the largest tax cut in Iowa’s history. Feenstra also served as a business professor at Dordt University before deciding to run for King’s seat in the House.
Feenstra’s willingness to put his head down and get work done has already impressed top GOP leaders.
“I’m very impressed with Randy,” McCarthy said. “He’s got a big future here.”