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DeSantis’ Closing Iowa Strategy: Hit Haley
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DeSantis’ Closing Iowa Strategy: Hit Haley

Plus, Joe Biden turns up the volume on his warnings about Donald Trump.

Happy Friday! Welcome to our orphan intra-holiday edition of Dispatch Politics—we’ll be off again Monday for New Year’s Day and back in your inboxes Wednesday. We look forward to bringing you all the latest political news and cutting-edge Civil War history then.

Up to Speed

  • Nikki Haley is reeling from a classic New Hampshire town hall gaffe. The ex-ambassador to the United Nations was asked Wednesday by an attendee to give her thoughts on what caused the Civil War. Haley’s answer, about freedom and government interference, did not include the word “slavery.” By Thursday morning she was in cleanup mode, saying in interviews and subsequent town halls that “of course” the Civil War was about slavery, adding, as a reminder, that as governor of South Carolina in 2015 she engineered the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds following the massacre of nine black parishioners in a Charleston-area church by a white supremacist gunman. Previous governors—Democratic and Republican—had declined to push the issue, fearful of alienating South Carolina voters. 
  • It was still unclear Friday morning whether this controversy would blunt Haley’s momentum in her bid for the Republican nomination, especially in New Hampshire, where she has been endorsed by popular Gov. Chris Sununu and has shown signs of true competitiveness against Donald Trump in recent polls. Some reports, like this one from Politico, suggest it might amount to nothing. But Haley’s opponents are doing their best to make her self-inflicted error stick. MAGA Inc., the super PAC supporting the former president, issued a press release listing the overflow of condemnations and critical analysis coming from reporters and pundits. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, on the trail in Iowa, said the episode shows Haley, now under more scrutiny, is not ready for prime time. And Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who is competing with Haley for votes in New Hampshire, said the controversy is just another illustration of a pandering candidate who is “unwilling to offend anyone by telling the truth.”
  • Speaking of Christie, who is campaigning almost exclusively in New Hampshire and running third behind Haley: He says he has changed his mind on same-sex marriage and is no longer opposed. “I don’t have any objection to it any longer. In the end, I think I’ve been convinced and, you know, that’s part of being a thinking, breathing human being,” Christie said during a town hall meeting. Christie’s campaign publicized his remarks in a press release issued to reporters.
  • In Maine, the state’s top elections official has ruled Trump ineligible for the primary ballot after several Maine voters filed challenges. Shenna Bellows, a Democrat elected to her position by the Maine Legislature, said in a statement that she made the decision after concluding Trump does not qualify for the presidency because he violated Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. Her decision mirrors a recent ruling issued by the Colorado Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the California secretary of state, Democrat Shirley Weber, has declined to disqualify Trump from her state’s ballot on similar grounds. Her decision comes a few days after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Trump should not be disqualified from its state’s primary ballot. Political and legal observers expect the decisions that have gone against Trump to be overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

To Catch Trump in Iowa, DeSantis Bludgeons … Haley

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to guests during the Scott County Fireside Chat on December 18, 2023, in Bettendorf, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to guests during the Scott County Fireside Chat on December 18, 2023, in Bettendorf, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

ANKENY, Iowa—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t had too many good breaks lately. But he had a spring in his step after his first event Thursday—a parental-rights roundtable at an Irish restaurant in this suburb north of Des Moines—and he walked up to talk to the press with something to smile about.

“We’re back after Christmas, we’re excited to be here,” he began. “You know, I noticed that Nikki Haley has had some problems with some basic American history. You know, she’s asked a very simple question and responded with just a really incomprehensible word salad about this and that—she asked the voter, what do you want her to say about this or that?”

“I just think that this shows this is not a candidate that’s ready for prime time,” he went on. “You know, she’s gotten a pretty free ride from a lot of the corporate press. The minute that she faces any type of scrutiny, she tends to cave. And I think that’s what you saw yesterday. Not that difficult to identify and acknowledge the role slavery played in the Civil War.”

Haley’s slavery gaffe Wednesday—which she continued to prolong with an inexplicable series of questionable cleanups throughout the day Thursday—was an unexpectedly good opportunity to stick in the knife against Haley.

But it was especially fortuitous since savaging Haley was what DeSantis had planned to spend his Thursday doing anyway. His second Thursday event, a meet-and-greet two hours east in Marion, kicked things off with remarks from Josh Kimbrell, a DeSantis-supporting South Carolina state senator tapped to testify to his former governor’s status as a RINO. (“I don’t view myself as an attack dog,” Kimbrell told reporters afterward. “I view myself as somebody telling the truth about Gov. DeSantis’ record vs. Gov. Haley’s record.”)

And the event’s Q&A ended with a question from a local campaign surrogate—Matt Wells, an eastern Iowa county chair for the campaign—about Haley’s support for “basically unfettered” immigration, which he characterized as a sop to her corporate donors. DeSantis responded that he didn’t want to “see us become Europe,” where “they’re bringing in a lot of people who do not want to assimilate and who don’t share the values.” Such a development “will kill this country,” DeSantis said—and Haley “will definitely allow this to happen.”

Trump didn’t go totally unpestered. DeSantis spent some time in Marion deriding the former president’s policy record, as ever, from the right: “He campaigned saying he was gonna hold Hillary accountable. And then two weeks after the election, said ‘Ah, forget about it, we’re not gonna do it.’ I think that sent a message to the bureaucracy and the deep state, that this is somebody that’s not gonna follow through on what he says.”

On the whole, however, it was 2023’s pre-primary season in miniature—a candidate trailing Donald Trump by a yawning margin in the polls, two weeks out from Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus, spending the bulk of his time savaging not the frontrunner but the candidate jockeying with him for the privilege of being the runner-up.

There are two ways of glossing this strategy. The less charitable read—the likelier one—is that this is the desperation playbook of a campaign running on fumes. DeSantis entered 2023 as unquestionably the strongest consensus primary alternative to Trump but has spent the year seemingly squandering that goodwill and his huge financial resources, sagging ever lower in the polls while struggling to navigate Republicans’ loyalty to their former president, enduring remarkably messy infighting at his Super PAC, and suffering under a barrage of criticism of his apparent lack of charisma on the campaign trail. He’s bet everything on Iowa, while Haley, focused on New Hampshire, has barely played in the state; if she beats him here, it’s all over but the crying.

That, of course, is not the Team DeSantis line. In their telling, going after Haley is actually their best available strategy for closing the gap with Trump. They take every opportunity to point out that Haley has refused to rule out serving as his vice president—a position she doubled down on again Thursday night. They’ve seized on this line in an attempt to illustrate that Trump, with his complacent, solipsistic worldview in which his toadies are good and his detractors are evil, is a sucker for being played and neutralized by the same embattled “establishment” that has increasingly embraced Haley.

“We know that the left doesn’t mind Trump being the nominee, because even if he were to be elected president, he is gonna do half what they want anyways,” Wells, the local campaign surrogate, told The Dispatch. “All you gotta do is kiss up to him and he’ll do whatever you tell him to.”

This, they insist, is actually the path to luring away Trump’s softer supporters—as opposed to scorching him directly in the same language as the left, which would probably just send them in a reactionary scurry back into the former president’s arms.

Maybe—probably!—this is just a coping mechanism. But in Marion, you could see glimmers of the path. One man who showed up to hear DeSantis speak, Rich Hoffmeyer, burst into applause when the governor said he would fire Jack Smith, the special prosecutor who has brought federal criminal charges against Trump, “on Day 1.”

Hoffmeyer and his wife Robin told The Dispatch afterward they had shown up leaning Trump but were leaving far less sure. “Trump just has a lot of baggage,” Robin said. “You know, he did good, it was a great four years, it really was—I have no complaints about that. DeSantis has given me pause.”

“We gotta think about that,” Rich said.

“Sleep on it,” Robin added.

Two down, 50,000 or so to go.

Biden Goes Big to Avoid Going Home

President Joe Biden is blaring dire warnings that Donald Trump poses a mortal threat to American democracy, scrambling to resuscitate his reelection prospects in a rematch with the former president that appears more likely as the calendar turns to 2024.

Biden’s dark claims of what awaits the United States if Trump wins a second term next year are not new. The 46th president has been saying as much about the 45th, in some form or another, since taking the oath of office nearly three years ago. But Biden has lately sharpened this particular attack, and employed it with rising frequency, as Trump has grabbed a clear and consistent lead over him in public opinion polls.

“He certainly supported an insurrection. No question about that,” Biden told reporters on December 20, according to a transcript provided by the White House, when asked if Trump is an “insurrectionist.” “Certain things are self-evident. You all saw it,” Biden said. The previous evening, during a campaign fundraiser in Maryland, the president had offered more of the same. 

“The greatest threat Trump poses is to our democracy. Because if we lose, we lose everything,” Biden said, also per a White House transcript. “He’s threatened to use the U.S. military in the streets of America to go after his political opponents. Once again, he embraces political violence instead of rejecting it. We can’t let this happen. God knows where he’ll take us.” And here he was at a fundraiser in Massachusetts a couple of weeks earlier: “Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy.” 

Trump vigorously denies the charge, and  typically responds by saying the same about his successor.

As of Friday morning, Trump was outpacing Biden 46.8 percent to 44.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, a lead he has held since early October. Trump has also enjoyed an edge over Biden on management of key individual issues such as the economy, immigration, and foreign policy. Raising the topic of Trump and American democracy might offer the president among his only paths to reelection.

The message Biden is relying on to claw his way back in front is linked to Trump’s refusal to concede his 2020 defeat; his pushing of conspiracy theories arguing that election was stolen; and his fomenting the January 6, 2021, ransacking of the U.S. Capitol. There’s also the Republican frontrunner’s broad array of ongoing unsubstantiated claims and provocative comments. Trump maintains his criminal indictments are the result of deliberate political persecution by the Biden administration and says illegal  immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

To be sure, Biden is running on more than convincing voters Trump is a three-alarm fire who would burn down democracy. He regularly pitches his agenda for the economy, health care, foreign policy and other issues. However, Biden’s drumbeat of concern about the deleterious impact the former president could have on the American way of life has grown distinctly louder as the election year nears. The Biden campaign declined to comment, saying the president’s comments speak for themselves.

Democratic operatives say Biden’s rhetoric makes for good strategy—and that it’s already worked once. In the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, Biden’s job approval was low, inflation was skyrocketing, and voters were uneasy with his leadership on a host of issues. Predictions of a Republican wave were rampant. Democrats nonetheless added one seat to their thin Senate majority, came close to hanging onto control of the House, and won governor’s races in key battleground states like Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. 

It was a remarkable overperformance given historical expectations: Presidents, especially unpopular ones, generally lose congressional seats in midterm elections. But Democratic insiders say Biden’s intense focus on the issue of American democracy down the stretch of that campaign, and warnings about Trump and his “MAGA Republicans,” helped buck that historic trend. The issue, Democrats say, works both to “activate” the party’s base and tear moderate Republicans away from the GOP.

“It fits into a pattern: abortion, education, democracy,” a Democratic strategist involved in House races said. “With Trump it’s believable because of how openly extreme he is and it’s part of a wider data set. So, Trump is a perfect example of how it can be an effective message.” 

A Democratic operative involved in Senate races agrees. “This is not the only issue Democrats should be talking about,” this insider said. “But it certainly was a part of the mixture of messages that led to over performance in the midterms.”

Notable and Quotable 

“Merry Christmas to all, including Crooked Joe Biden’s ONLY HOPE, Deranged Jack Smith, the out of control Lunatic who just hired outside attorneys, fresh from the SWAMP (unprecedented!) to help him with his poorly executed WITCH HUNT against ‘TRUMP’ and ‘MAGA.’ Included also are World Leaders, both good and bad, but none of which are as evil and ‘SICK’ as the THUGS we have inside our own Country who, with their Open Borders, INFLATION, Afghanistan Surrender, Green New Scam, High Taxes, No Energy Independence, Woke Military, Russia/Ukraine, Israel/Iran, All Electric Car Lunacy, and so much more, are looking to destroy our once great USA. MAY THEY ROT IN HELL. AGAIN, MERRY CHRISTMAS!”

Donald Trump in a Christmas post to Truth Social, December 25, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.