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DeSantis PAC Touts Turnout Efforts in Iowa
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DeSantis PAC Touts Turnout Efforts in Iowa

Plus: After denunciations from Rep. Chip Roy, House GOP hastens to highlight its current-Congress accomplishments.

Happy Friday! A quick programming note: If you’re a congressional candidate illegally spending campaign cash on Dispatch merch, we request you stop doing so immediately. (All others, go crazy.)

Up to Speed

  • Congress averted a shutdown of the federal government, and throughout the holiday season, approving a short-term continuing resolution that will keep the lights on through next year. The “laddered” legislation, drawn up by House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, slates some government agencies to exhaust funding in January, while others won’t need to be refunded until February. President Joe Biden has signed the bill.
  • Scandal-plagued Rep. George Santos will not seek reelection in 2024, he said Thursday. The New York Republican made the announcement on the heels of the release of a scathing report from the House Ethics Committee alleging he misused campaign funds and committed other serious crimes during his 2022 bid for the 3rd Congressional District. (That report is worth paging through, detailing as it does a level of financial lawbreaking shameless enough to wow even those who have followed the Santos affair closely so far.)
  • The release of the report has renewed calls by some House Republicans for Santos to be expelled from Congress. Although such a vote failed in the House earlier this month, sources tell The Dispatch that its proponents are hopeful the balance has shifted: Many Republicans (and some Democrats) had been uneasy about the due-process precedent of preempting the ethics investigation. Emblematic of that shift is the fact that it was Ethics Committee Chair Michael Guest, rather than Santos’s New York GOP detractors as before, who filed the motion of expulsion Friday morning. It would require approval of two-thirds of the House to pass.
  • The New Hampshire “first in the nation” presidential primary has been set for January 23, eight days following the GOP’s Iowa caucuses, Secretary of State David Scanlan announced this week. On the Democratic side, President Joe Biden will not be on the ballot, although supporters are mounting a write-in campaign. The president did not file for the primary, honoring rules changes to the Democratic Party’s early state schedule that elevated South Carolina and pushed back New Hampshire.
  • Chicago voters are unhappy with their newest mayor, Brandon Johnson, according to a poll from the Republican firm Echelon Insights. The Democrat, elected in April, has an abysmal 28 percent job approval rating, with 50 percent giving him negative marks and 22 percent saying they are unsure. Quality of life issues seem to be the culprit, as large majorities disapprove of his handling of “crime and public safety,” “housing and homelessness,” and the influx of illegal immigrants transported to the city from Texas. The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
  • Army veteran Yevgeny Vindman is running for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, the seat being vacated by Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat who is retiring from the House to run for governor. Vindman may look and sound familiar. He is the twin brother of Alexander Vindman, the onetime White House aide turned whistleblower who revealed then-President Donald Trump’s attempt to hold U.S. military assistance to Ukraine hostage unless Kyiv offered up dirt on future President Joe Biden. The episode led to Trump’s first impeachment, although he was acquitted in the Senate. 

Team DeSantis Stakes Hopes on Iowa Turnout Apparatus

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife Casey speak with guests after a campaign event at Refuge City Church on October 08, 2023 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife Casey speak with guests after a campaign event at Refuge City Church on October 08, 2023 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Ron DeSantis has a mountain to climb in Iowa. With the January 15 caucuses less than 60 days out, the Florida governor trails former President Donald Trump in the state by more than 30 percentage points. But if DeSantis manages to close the gap, he has a weapon at the ready capable of deciding the race: infrastructure.

Infrastructure is political jargon for “voter turnout operation.” And for all of the DeSantis campaign’s many challenges, fielding a well-functioning, adequately funded (in Iowa, at least) voter turnout operation is not among them. Perhaps that’s because the task was long ago farmed out to Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting the governor’s 2024 presidential campaign, and seeded with tens of millions of dollars of unused cash from his 2022 gubernatorial reelection. 

Either way, sources familiar with Never Back Down’s program to turn out voters for DeSantis in the Iowa caucuses shared some key aspects of the effort with The Dispatch

Let’s start with this: Through extensive use of data analytics, Never Back Down estimates a record 216,565 Iowans will vote in the 2024 caucuses. That would amount to roughly 30,000 more than participated in 2016, the last open GOP contest. (Incidentally, the candidate advised by Never Back Down chief strategist Jeff Roe in that race—Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas—finished first, 3.3 points ahead of Trump. Roe also advised the Republican winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.) 

Regardless of how many Iowans show up for the caucus on what is likely to be a cold and possibly snowy night in mid-January, Never Back Down has accumulated more than 24,000 “commit to caucus” cards. These are cards with voters’ names and their contact information in which they have committed to caucus for DeSantis; Never Back Down has followed up with these voters multiple times, and believes the count is reliable. 

Included in that stack of cards is the name and contact of one particular Iowa voter who might influence others to join her: popular Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Caucuses are held in person, in the evening, and involve more than just marking a ballot. Caucusgoers have to hang around for a while, listening to speeches on behalf of the candidates before the voting commences. That’s why a sophisticated turnout operation can be a difference maker. To wit, Never Back Down has so far signed up 856 captains to man the state’s 1,656 voting precincts, in a bid to maximize turnout of DeSantis supporters at all 700 caucus sites.

Some of the larger precincts have more than one captain. But the key, Never Back Down officials believe, is that, No. 1, they already have captains for 52 percent of existing precincts; and No. 2, they were already having ongoing conversations with DeSantis supporters and other targeted voters in their precincts, a full two months before the election. Between now and then, each precinct captain is responsible for communicating with 131 Iowans viewed as likely GOP caucusgoers. 

The data from those conversations is meticulously collected and analyzed. Among the information on hand: whom a likely caucusgoer is supporting, when they came to that decision, whom their second choice is, and what issues they are prioritizing most. Never Back Down precinct captains, and the grassroots volunteers working under them, use this information to govern their discussions with individual voters and tailor specific, issues-based messages to specific voters.

Of course, it should go without saying: Candidates win campaigns. And so all of the accoutrement Never Back Down brings to the table as a political machine is not going to make up for serious deficiencies on the part of DeSantis. It’s also true the governor is facing at least two formidable opponents—one difficult to catch, the other who could be difficult to outrun.

Trump doesn’t just lead DeSantis in polling. The former president’s campaign told us Thursday that, earlier this week, it surpassed the collection of 45,000 “commit to caucus” cards. It’s unclear if those commitments are as airtight as Never Back Down believes theirs are. But if so, that’s yet another obstacle. 

Additionally, Nikki Haley has steadily gained ground on DeSantis since August. The former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations now trails DeSantis in Iowa, in the RealClearPolitics polling average, by just 3 points. 

House GOP Grapples With Limits of Small Majority

Rep. Chip Roy of Texas took to the floor of the House of Representatives on Wednesday to rake Republican leadership over the coals. Here’s part of what he said:

I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing, one, that I can go campaign on and say we did. One! Anybody sitting in the complex, if you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done besides, well, I guess it’s not as bad as the Democrats.

Those of you in Washington may have suddenly heard something during Roy’s speech: the sound of Democratic campaign ad makers throwing out their old scripts and clipping the video and audio from C-SPAN. Expect to hear Roy’s words in a swing House district near you next year.

But Roy raised a good question: What will House Republicans, hampered by an exceedingly narrow majority and a Senate and White House controlled by Democrats, run on in 2024? Much of this term has been dominated by leadership disputes and budget brinkmanship, like recent battles to avoid a government shutdown or the fight to raise the debt ceiling back in the spring.

So we posed Roy’s question to some Republican strategists who have an interest in keeping and growing the party’s majority in the House next year. What’s “one material, meaningful, significant thing” the House GOP has done?

“House Republicans are laser focused on the issues voters care most about—the border, energy, economy, crime, and accountability,” said Will Reinert, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We like that comparison to House Democrats’ years of driving up inflation and opening the border.”

Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, sent a succinct list of accomplishments along the same lines, including public safety, border security, oversight of the president, and stopping “Biden’s out of control spending that put us in this inflation disaster.”

“That was the easiest question I’ve fielded in a month,” Conston added.

There are some specifics to that list that you can expect Republicans to talk about next year. On crime, GOP strategists point to a series of resolutions passed by the House this spring that overruled the city of Washington, D.C.’s changes to its police and criminal procedures. One resolution, which blocked the city council’s overhaul of its criminal code, even earned enough Democratic support to pass in the Senate as well—and President Biden declined to veto it.

“That’s a perfect example of putting Democrats in very difficult positions on crime,” said one GOP strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

On border security, Republicans are thumping their chests about passing major legislation that would fund the completion of a wall on the southern border and restrict asylum access back in May—though it’s going nowhere in the Democratic Senate and the Biden administration has said it opposes the bill. And there are the ongoing investigations into the president and his son, Hunter Biden, including an impeachment inquiry that seems to be treading water.

But there’s the simple fact, as one GOP leadership aide noted to The Dispatch, that with such a narrow majority and without total control of Congress and the presidency, achievements such as, say, the tax reform passed and signed into law in 2017 just aren’t possible right now.

“This is a conference with a small majority. I think we have to be practical about what we accomplish,” said this aide, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“We had to be practical about what we could accomplish” is hardly a message for House Republicans to rally around during next year’s elections, even if it reflects the harsh realities of divided government. Another message reflective of these limitations you can expect from Republicans next year is more negative: A House GOP can stand athwart Democratic overreach.

“We’re the last line of defense against Biden and Democrats’ agenda,” said the anonymous strategist. It may not be enough to satisfy Roy and those Republicans looking for more substantive policy victories, but party operatives say being a bulwark against more liberal policies is politically salable. 

One thing is for sure: Republican leadership has no patience for Roy’s approach.

“We’re in the majority, but we have a minority mindset,” said the GOP strategist.

Notable and Quotable 

“If there was a single ounce of ETHICS in the ‘Ethics committee,’ they would have not released this biased report. … It is a disgusting political smear that shows the depths of how low our federal government has sunk. Everyone who participated in this grave miscarriage of Justice should all be ashamed of themselves.” 

—New York Rep. George Santos on the results of the GOP-led ethics investigation into his alleged campaign-finance crimes, November 16, 2023

Correction, November 17, 2023: A previous version of this newsletter misidentified the mayor of Chicago as “Brandon Williams.” His name is Brandon Johnson.

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.