Fur flies between Iowa Republican representative and animal rights group

Animosity between a House conservative and a prominent animal rights group has exploded into election-year fireworks in rural Iowa.

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The Humane Society Legislative Fund has spent more than half of its political action budget so far this election cycle opposing a single lawmaker: Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

The group — the 501(c)(4) lobbying affiliate of the Humane Society of the United States — says King has turned himself into the chief foe of animal protection in Congress.

King’s campaign calls the group extreme and says the congressman is being targeted for championing states’ rights and standing up against over-regulation.

The clash is playing out in a key House race that has garnered national attention.

Democrat Christie Vilsack, wife of former Iowa governor and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, is running against King, who picked up a high-profile endorsement from GOP nominee Mitt Romney earlier this year.

Other outside groups are also jumping into the race, but Jimmy Centers, communications director for King’s campaign, told The Hill that the animal rights group’s television ads are “the most dishonest.” He noted that some stations refused to air one of the group’s ads.

“It's the most dishonest, and that's reflected by the fact that eight television stations serving the Fourth District have pulled the ad. It has no place in Iowa or American politics,” Centers said.

The rejected ad focused on King’s vote over the summer against an amendment to the farm bill that would penalize spectators at animal fighting contests. King said he opposes any kind of animal fighting, but argued the matter should rest in states’ hands, many of which have already passed laws targeting spectators at such fights.

Several Iowa television stations refused to air the spot, but the group reworked it to focus on King’s broader record. The revamped ad was cleared by the stations and is now running in Iowa, according to Michael Markarian, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

“He has made himself the self-appointed leader of opposing animal welfare laws in Congress,” Markarian said of King. “He speaks out against these laws nearly every time they come out and we want the voters in Iowa's Fourth District to know his record in support of animal cruelty.”

Markarian said it wasn't clear why the first ad that was rejected, with some TV stations saying it was too graphic and others questioning its truthfulness. The animal rights advocate noted a Des Moines Register editorial describes the rejected ad as “accurate” and that it has since been viewed more than 25,000 times on YouTube.

The race between King and Vilsack is considered competitive, though the congressman’s district leans Republican, according to the Cook Political Report.

The Humane Society Legislative Fund has spent more than $180,000 on independent expenditures so far this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. About $100,000 of that has gone towards defeating King — much more than any one of the nearly dozen individual House races the group has spent money on.

The Humane Society didn’t sponsor ads against King during the 2010 mid-term campaign, but after redistricting in Iowa, his race became a much more attractive target, according to Markarian. He said animal rights are not typical election-year fare either, so the ads have more resonance with voters.

“These issues can often cut through the clutter because these are issues that voters don't typically hear about. It's often surprising for voters to hear that a legislator is against strengthening laws against dog-fighting or helping pets during disasters,” Markarian said.

King has long fought with the Humane Society.

In an April 2010 op-ed, he wrote the group “is run by vegetarians with an extreme anti-meat agenda” and is “a radical, activist group committed to working against livestock production and American farmers.”

This summer, King passed an amendment to the House version of the farm bill that he argued in a statement would “ensure that radical organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and PETA are prohibited from establishing a patchwork of restrictive state laws aimed at slowly suffocating production agriculture out of existence.”

That measure was the Protect Interstate Commerce Act (PICA), which said states can’t impose limits on agricultural products’ means of production. The provision is in response to a California state law that would ban eggs produced by hens in small cages, even from out of state.

“California's burdensome regulations can't be passed onto other states like Iowa and Congressman King's amendment protects states' rights,” Centers said, noting the amendment had the support of pork farmers.

Centers said King is fighting for farmers and touted the Iowa Farm Bureau’s endorsement of him. He dismissed the revamped ad from the Humane Society Legislative Fund as another “dishonest and misleading” attack and said the group was upset by King's PICA amendment to the farm bill.

The Humane Society Legislative Fund spent close to $750,000 on independent expenditures in the 2010 election cycle, according to FEC records, and Markarian said the group expects to spend as much this campaign season.

King’s race will remain a focus of the group, with plans for more spending on television advertising and canvassing in the district.

“It is certainly one of our priority races. We are looking to do more over the coming month,” Markarian said.