Population declining in Rep. Steve King's district

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) set the cable news world alight Sunday with a controversial tweet belittling immigrants and siding with a Dutch politician who has been convicted of hate speech. 

But the tweet belied a reality of economic stagnation in rural America: King's district is dying.

King's district covers 39 counties north and west of Des Moines. It is among the least diverse districts in America, with a population that is more than 95 percent white. 

And while the urban core of King's district — based in Sioux City, across the Missouri River from Omaha, and Ames, home of Iowa State University — is growing, many of the rural counties are watching their populations decline.

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"Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny," King, 67, tweeted Sunday, referring to Dutch nationalist politician Geert Wilders. "We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."

White nationalists like former KKK leader David Duke praised the message. 

But King’s largely homogenous district has not been able to repopulate itself, as younger residents flee to urban areas and the agricultural economy struggles to survive. 

Populations in 31 of the 39 counties in King's declined between 2010 and 2015, according to The Hill's review of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Story County, home of Ames, and Sioux County have both grown, but virtually every rural county has seen its population numbers decrease.

At the same time, most of those rural counties are growing significantly older. The average county in King's district has a median age of more than 42, five years older than the U.S. average.

About 25,000 residents in King's district have jobs in agriculture, according to Census Bureau data, far higher than in the average district. And more than 16 percent of all jobs in King's district are manufacturing jobs.

While the unemployment rate is low, at 2.9 percent, the median household income is $2,000 lower than the national average.

Political observers in Iowa say years of low commodity prices have hurt the agricultural economy that once drove America's bread basket. Farms have consolidated or been purchased by conglomerates, and technological advances like automation have meant fewer employees are needed to work the fields. Seeking their own advancement, young people move to bigger cities like Des Moines and Sioux City, leaving their parents behind. 

"Our small towns are dying," said Tim Albrecht, a Republican strategist who worked for Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and grew up in Ida County, in King's district. "A lot of it is people just don't need to have as many kids to work the farms. And the limited number of kids they do have go off to Des Moines or different states altogether."

Ida County, east of Sioux City, is typical of the changing face of western Iowa. The county had a population of 7,071 in 2015, the Census Bureau reported, a slight decline from 2010 at a time when the United States added millions of new residents. It is more than 97 percent white, and more than one in five jobs in the county are in the manufacturing sector. 

Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist based in Des Moines, pointed to the price of staple commodities like corn and soybeans. A bushel of corn today commands about $3.61 on the futures markets, less than half its post-recessionary peak of more than $8 a bushel. Soybeans, too, are near half the price of their post-recession highs.

"The King district, like the rest of corn country, has seen farm consolidations in the last decade," Link said in an email. "While unemployment is low in the state, the economy has been hit hard by low commodity prices."

Residents of King's district backed President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAssange meets U.S. congressman, vows to prove Russia did not leak him documents A history lesson on the Confederacy for President Trump GOP senator: Trump hasn't 'changed much' since campaign MORE strongly in November: Trump won 61 percent of the vote, a seven-point improvement over Republican Mitt Romney's performance in 2012. Trump has promised to crack down on illegal immigration, a favored issue for the conservative congressman.

Ida County is also typical of how many manufacturing-heavy counties voted in 2016: President Obama took 36 percent of the vote there in 2012. Four years later, Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAssange meets U.S. congressman, vows to prove Russia did not leak him documents High-ranking FBI official leaves Russia probe OPINION | Steve Bannon is Trump's indispensable man — don't sacrifice him to the critics MORE won just 22 percent of the vote.

Thirty-eight of the 39 counties in King's district shifted at least 12 points toward Republicans in 2016. The only exception, Sioux County, shifted a single point toward Trump.

Under fire over the tweet Monday, King said: "I meant exactly what I said." 

"We need to get our birth rates up or Europe will be entirely transformed within a half century or a little more," he said. 

King may need to take that message home to a rapidly graying and dwindling district.