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DeSantis Plants a Flag in Iowa
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DeSantis Plants a Flag in Iowa

Plus: Trump cancels his Des Moines rally, but his Iowa devotees remain committed.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks onstage with his wife, Casey DeSantis during an Iowa GOP reception on May 13, 2023 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Happy Monday! We hope you all called your moms yesterday—and that you stayed a little more on message than the 45th president did: “Happy Mother’s Day to ALL, in particular the Mothers, Wives and Lovers of the Radical Left Fascists, Marxists, and Communists who are doing everything within their power to destroy and obliterate our once great Country. Please make these complete Lunatics and Maniacs Kinder, Gentler, Softer and, most importantly, Smarter, so that we can, quickly, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!!!”

Up to Speed

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis barnstormed Iowa over the weekend, holding events in Sioux Center, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines Saturday. Former President Donald Trump was scheduled to hold his own rally in Des Moines, but the outdoor event was canceled due to a Saturday afternoon tornado watch in the area.
  • Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Sunday that “it’s not realistic” for Republicans to talk about a federal ban on abortion at present, since such a move would require 60 votes in the Senate. One prominent pro-life group, SBA Pro-Life America, immediately blasted the comments: “The pro-life movement must have a nominee who will boldly advocate for [a 15-week ban], and as president will work tirelessly to gather the votes necessary in Congress. Dismissing this task as unrealistic is not acceptable.”
  • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she is “hopeful” about the progress President Biden and congressional leaders are making over the debt-ceiling standoff after a White House meeting last week proved unproductive in bringing leaders to a deal. “I think the negotiations are very active,” Yellen told the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. “I’m told they have found some areas of agreement.”
  • North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the state legislature’s newly passed 12-week abortion ban on Saturday, lambasting the bill as legislation that forces women to “navigate a wicked obstacle course just to get care.” The Tarheel State legislature’s Republican supermajority is expected to override Cooper’s veto.
  • Kentucky gubernatorial contender Kelly Craft is bringing in Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy ahead of this Tuesday’s GOP primary in the Bluegrass State. The two are scheduled to appear together Monday afternoon at a rally in Lexington. Craft’s main rivals for the GOP nomination are state Attorney General Daniel Cameron and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.

After Months of Missteps, DeSantis a Hit in Iowa

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa—The drumbeat of doubt surrounding Ron DeSantis and his 2024 prospects might be justified. But the drums were silent this weekend here in the state hosting the crucial first Republican presidential nominating contest early next year.

On Saturday morning, DeSantis headlined Rep. Randy Feenstra’s “Feenstra Family Picnic,” the annual grassroots fundraising bash in the congressman’s Northwest Iowa district. The event is usually held in July, but Feenstra moved it up this year at DeSantis’ request, to coincide with the expected launch of the Florida governor’s White House bid. He wasn’t disappointed: The picnic welcomed a record crowd of roughly 700 people, some of whom drove for hours to see DeSantis.

Enthusiasm for the governor’s anticipated presidential campaign has been percolating for months, and the level of interest in this conservative stronghold of Iowa exposed an unmistakable political opportunity. DeSantis has recently weathered a steep slump in national polling amid withering attacks from Donald Trump, now the clear frontrunner in the GOP primary. But he remains positioned to use the Iowa caucuses to turn the tables on the former president, an important step if he hopes to capture the nomination.

“In my part of the world, I’m sensing some Trump fatigue,” said Jim Dean, a Feenstra benefactor and local businessman who owns the classic-car museum that has served as the venue for the congressman’s annual fundraiser. “We love the policies. But the way he treats people—it’s just so foreign to me.” Dean, a likely caucusgoer, is undecided in the primary.

Many of the grassroots Iowa caucusgoers DeSantis hopes to win over haven’t wholly soured on Trump, whom they still see as the sort of brash fighter that’s necessary to drain the “D.C. swamp.” But after three straight disappointing elections for the GOP, plenty who turned out to see DeSantis on Saturday say they aren’t sure Trump can win a rematch against President Joe Biden. They say they’re tired of relitigating 2020—a subject Trump just won’t quit. And many say they believe DeSantis in particular offers the party the brawler they want without the baggage.

“Here’s my feeling on Trump. When he was president, I agreed with most of his policies and the results of the policies. I never was too fond of him on a personal level,” said James Subart, a 63-year-old retiree who is undecided but said he is leaning toward DeSantis. “There are other people, I think, that could do as well or better from a political standpoint.”

“I’ve had lots of conversations with family and friends. We love what President Trump did when he was president—he accomplished a lot,” said Dale Zevenbergen, 54, a Republican activist and business professor at Dordt University in Sioux Center, also undecided but leaning toward the Florida governor. “But we’re kind of ready to move on. We’re weary of looking back at 2020.”

Even some grassroots conservatives who blame a biased, unfair media for Trump’s political liabilities are ready to move on.

Trump “gets things done—what he said he’s going to do, he does,” said Gwen Clemon, a retiree who drove five hours roundtrip to get a glimpse of DeSantis. So, why is she leaning toward supporting the governor in the caucuses? In addition to his opposition to abortion and commitment to crack down on illegal immigration, Clemon said DeSantis is simply more electable. “Unfortunately it has nothing to do with [Trump]. It’s the people that are bound and determined not to let him win.”

Flanked by his wife Casey, a telegenic former broadcaster, DeSantis addressed a rapt crowd for about 35 minutes, discussing key cultural and domestic issues designed to appeal to a Republican base long in thrall of Trump. Applause interrupted the governor repeatedly, with the audience rising to its feet when he said it was time to close the Southern border to illegal immigration and finish building the security wall the former president started but didn’t finish. 

Twice DeSantis took brief, veiled shots at Trump, although he never mentioned him by name.

“Governing is not about entertaining, governing is not about building a brand, or talking on social media and virtual signaling. It’s ultimately about winning and about producing results,” he said. Later, the governor added: “There’s no substitute for victory. We must reject a culture of losing that’s infected our party in recent years. The time for excuses is over.”

At another packed event hosted by the Iowa Republican Party in Cedar Rapids later in the day, DeSantis got another favorable reception—but here it was Casey DeSantis who stole the show, counterbalancing her husband’s martial focus on policy with anecdotes about their home life and discussing child-welfare and anti-poverty initiatives she’s worked on as Florida’s first lady.

Tim Burrack, a farmer who attended the Cedar Rapids event, told The Dispatch that DeSantis had impressed him, but “his wife even impressed me maybe as much if not more. They’re a one-two team. Maybe they should be president and vice president, both slots.” 

“I am looking at him a hundred times harder than I did two hours ago,” Burrack added.

Trump Gets Rained Out, But his Diehards Don’t Mind

DES MOINES, Iowa—Donald Trump, never one to let a rival hold the spotlight, had hoped to upstage Ron DeSantis with a major rally here in the Iowa capital Saturday. But bad luck intervened: A sudden thunderstorm around noon drenched the unpaved event space his campaign had reserved, and a tornado watch in the area ultimately led the former president to pull the plug hours before he was expected to go on.

Far from pulling attention away from DeSantis, the aborted rally actually increased the media spotlight on the governor’s successful Iowa leg: Some reporters who’d come into town for Trump’s event only to find themselves with an unexpectedly free evening—one of your correspondents included—instead hoofed it out to Cedar Rapids, two hours east, to catch what was suddenly the only game in town. After that event, DeSantis twisted the knife, heading to Des Moines for a third, unscheduled appearance at a barbecue restaurant just a few miles from Trump’s canceled rally to mingle with outdoor diners. 

He and Casey hopped on a patio table and addressed a crowd of approximately 150, making sure to mention that it was a beautiful night. Meanwhile, on Twitter, DeSantis supporters accused Trump of ditching the rally not because of weather concerns but because he feared poor attendance. In many ways, Iowa is perfectly suited for a challenger like DeSantis: The state cherishes its first-in-the-nation status, and many caucusgoers take real pride in their vetting role, determined to give everyone who shows up a real hearing and a fair shake. 

But Trump’s greatest political strength still lies in those voters who never paid much attention to all that before and remain fully bought in and ready to show up for him anyway. The former president’s establishment support, too, appears strong: On Saturday, he unveiled more than 150 endorsements from GOP activists and elected officials across Iowa’s 99 counties. Even a Trump rally that never gets off the ground is enough to remind you that the former president continues to be formidable.

Before leaving the Trump rally grounds, The Dispatch stuck around to chat with a number of folks who were still arriving, unaware of the bad news. Some had driven hours to get there, all were crestfallen, but none seemed inclined to hold the cancellation against the former president. Some had nice things to say about other candidates, but all were adamant on one point: It’s not their turn yet.

“I think DeSantis is great, and I think he’ll make a great president, but it’s not his time,” said Bria Didszun, a recent transplant to Des Moines from California. “Trump had his last four years stolen from him, and I think the right thing to do is to allow him to finish out his four-year term, and then DeSantis can run.”

“I would love Nikki Haley to run, because it would be great to see a woman run for president, like really seriously run, but I don’t think it’s her time,” added attendee Kari Kaulen. “DeSantis, I’m not real sure—I think he’s done great things for Florida, but I don’t think it’s his time either.”

Two Iowa women, who declined to share their names, had shown up for a very specific reason: Their husbands, they said, are currently imprisoned on charges stemming from their participation in the Capitol rally on January 6, and they’d heard Trump had suggested he would pardon some of the rioters if reelected. 

“It gives me hope. It gives me something to look forward to,” one said. “If he doesn’t, you know—but I mean, he’s done mostly everything that he said he was gonna do, so why not this?”

Eyes on the Trail

  • Hawkeye Harbinger? It wasn’t just happenstance or this state’s tradition of welcoming presidential contenders that blew some badly needed fresh wind in Ron DeSantis’ sails. On Friday, 37 Iowa legislators endorsed Florida’s governor, including Senate President Amy Sinclair and House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl. Talks to earn their backing coincided with the months-long political battering the governor suffered nationally—and former president Donald Trump’s emergence as the GOP frontrunner. But knowledgeable sources say those developments had little impact on efforts to recruit prominent Iowa support for DeSantis. The results, and the reception he received Saturday at three stops across the state, suggest momentum behind the governor’s presumed campaign and confidence in his viability. Trump didn’t win the Iowa caucuses in 2016, losing to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. But after winning Iowa by a landslide the ensuing November, and again in the 2020 general election, a loss in the 2024 caucuses could kneecap his White House comeback hopes—and be a real springboard for DeSantis. “There’s no coronation,” Windschitl told The Dispatch. “I do see a really good opportunity here for the governor.”

Notable and Quotable

“Don’t think for a second he gets home from work and goes straight to bed. I hand three small kids over to him and I go to bed.” 

—Casey DeSantis onstage with Ron DeSantis in Cedar Rapids, May 13, 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.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.