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Iowa Is Donald Trump’s to Lose
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Iowa Is Donald Trump’s to Lose

Plus: How Democrats see their (narrow) path to a House majority.

Happy Monday! One week till Iowa. See you there.

Up to Speed

  • A controversy erupted last week around Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after he was unexpectedly hospitalized following complications from a routine medical procedure—while leaving his deputies and the White House in the dark about where he was and why. Congressional Republicans denounced the communications breakdown as evidence of a Biden administration in administrative disarray.
  • Members of Michigan’s state Republican Party voted Saturday to oust controversial chairwoman Kristina Karamo, an activist who made her political bones as a booster of Donald Trump’s stolen-election lies in the wake of his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden. Karamo, who took control of the state party last February, has seen the party’s organization and finances fall into disarray under her watch. But Karamo blasted the vote—which came during an unusual meeting of about two-thirds of the party’s state committee members—as illegitimate: “Their performance has no legal standing. I am still chair of the Michigan Republican Party.”
  • Police were called to a Colorado restaurant Saturday after Rep. Lauren Boebert got into an alleged physical altercation there with her ex-husband Jayson Boebert, who told The Daily Beast she had repeatedly punched him. Boebert said in a statement that she “didn’t punch Jayson in the face and no one was arrested.” The controversial lawmaker, whose erratic reputation helped her come within 600 votes of losing to Democrat Adam Frisch in the staunchly Republican 3rd District last year, announced last week she would run for reelection in the even redder neighboring 4th. 

Iowa, One Week Out

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event on January 5, 2024, in Sioux Center, Iowa. (Photo by Jabin Botsford /The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event on January 5, 2024, in Sioux Center, Iowa. (Photo by Jabin Botsford /The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It’s been the longest presidential pre-primary in recent memory—Donald Trump declared his 2024 candidacy 419 days ago—but here we stand at last on the brink: The actual voting starts in Iowa one week from today. For heavy frontrunner Donald Trump, it’s an opportunity to smother the primary in its cradle with a massive victory. For Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, it’s a crucial step to showing Trump’s grip on the party still has cracks—and to show which of them is best positioned to unite the insurgents under one banner at last.

To say Trump’s task is looking easier at the moment is an understatement. If the polls are right, the 45th president is going to clean up in Iowa. In fact, for Trump to fall to second would require a polling error of precedent-obliterating scale: While candidates can surge at the 11th hour in the Hawkeye state, no candidate with a double-digit lead a month before the caucuses in Ann Selzer’s gold-standard Iowa Poll has ever gone on to lose. Trump’s lead in December’s Selzer poll? 32 points: 51 percent Trump, 19 percent DeSantis, 16 percent Haley.

Trump has stuck with his traditional mega-rally style in Iowa, skipping the traditional campaigning path for candidates in the state of schlepping to dozens of town halls and meet-and-greets, fielding hundreds of questions, shaking hands and snapping selfies with thousands of voters in the months leading up to the caucus. His opponents have constantly drilled him on this absence: “I think that if someone’s not willing to come and earn your support,” DeSantis often says at Iowa events, “that should make a difference to you.”

But many of the voters Trump commands don’t belong to Iowa’s unique subculture of plugged-in caucus junkies who view themselves as gatekeepers of the primary process and consider it their civic duty to meet and evaluate every candidate. They don’t care that Trump’s never come to their local coffee shop to take questions on border policy. They’ve never felt the need to sit down and itemize the pros and cons of Trump relative to, say, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. And when Trump does come to town to rally, they line up to wait for hours to get inside and see him—an enthusiasm the former president doesn’t intend to squander despite his massive lead.

“Pretend you’re one point down,” Trump thundered at a Saturday rally in Clinton. “You have to get out, and you have to vote, vote, vote.”

DeSantis, who has relentlessly courted the favor of Iowa’s traditional caucusgoers, continues to insist the polls are underestimating their enthusiasm for his campaign, which has received air support in the form of major endorsements from Iowa’s kindred-spirit governor Kim Reynolds and social-conservative kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats. But what was supposed to be a powerful springboard toward national success is now, if the polls are correct, in danger of looking more like a last stand. If DeSantis can’t compete with Trump here, where he’s focused his resources and his time and scored important endorsements, where will he be able to compete with him?

Haley has one slim strategic advantage over DeSantis: Her do-or-die moment isn’t quite so close. Her hope is to edge DeSantis out in Iowa in order to build more momentum going into her own all-important contest of New Hampshire, where she has sole occupancy of second place.

Trump has been savaging Haley on the airwaves in the Granite State for a while, but in recent days he’s saved some vitriol for her in Iowa, too. “Nikki would sell you out just like she sold me out,” he told the Clinton crowd Saturday. 

Democrats’ Path to Retaking the House

Last week, Dispatch Politics laid out how the race for the majority in the House of Representatives looks, 10 months out, from the Republican perspective. It’s clear there are plenty of reasons for the GOP to feel upbeat about its ability to maintain or even increase its  paper-thin majority in 2024.

While Democrats have far fewer structural advantages—the redistricting results, for instance, will be at best a wash and at worst a net loss in safe districts—one Democratic strategist last week walked The Dispatch through his own calculus for how the party might claw back control of the House, perhaps even winning enough to have a five-seat majority. That’s a less ambitious projection than, say, the 10-seat gain former House speaker Kevin McCarthy has predicted, but the consensus among those in the know in both parties is that the new House majority in 2025 will be about as small as the current one, whichever party is in charge.

The Trump turnout machine.

Republicans may be counting on having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket to improve GOP turnout down the ballot, but Democrats view the former president as a motivating force for turning out their own voters if he’s the GOP nominee. In 2018, when elections were held in the middle of Trump’s term, overall voter turnout jumped to more 53 percent, the highest turnout for a midterm in decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That undoubtedly helped boost Democratic House candidates and grow the party’s eventual majority. The next two elections also saw relatively high turnout, though in 2022 there was a noticeable drop in key Democratic coalition groups, the Brookings Institution found, including in young voters, black voters, and women.

Our strategist source says the dip in turnout from 2022 can be reversed in 2024 with Trump on the ballot once more.

“Trump’s proven that he is the biggest driver of mobilization,” said the strategist. “Nothing can mobilize like him, either for or against, on either side.”

Running on Biden successes and GOP House failures.

The specter of a second Trump term may paper over any lack of enthusiasm among Democratic base voters over President Joe Biden, who has in particular frustrated progressive members and candidates in the party. But even some in the center-left of the party are feeling nervous about running under the Biden banner—39 percent approval ratings for your party’s president will do that.

But Democrats have an opportunity to tailor their messages in key swing districts, running not as lockstep allies of Biden but instead as effective legislators—“mayors” of their districts, as our source put it. By running on specific projects such as expansion of federal funds for infrastructure like bridges or rural broadband in spending packages signed into law by Biden, even House Democrats in Trump districts, such as Jared Golden of Maine and Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, can use their incumbency to their advantage.

“Take the safest, most effective thing for you to run on, because they’re gonna associate you with the president anyway, and make what your opponent thinks is a liability your strength,” said the Democratic strategist. “Do you really want to talk about Joe Biden? Let’s talk about how I built a bridge here, and you didn’t want to do it and how I lowered healthcare costs, and you didn’t want to.”

And Democrats may also be able to take advantage of the sense that the House GOP majority has been an ineffective, ungovernable mess. They will try to create a boogeyman out of House Speaker Mike Johnson and use his more socially conservative and pro-Trump views to paint moderate Republicans in tight races—such as Rep. Mike Lawler, whose New York district voted for Biden in 2020—as supportive of “extreme” leaders.

“Voters are not inclined to equate Mike Lawler with Donald Trump. It just doesn’t make sense to them. Nor should it. What you have to do is spell it out for them,” said the strategist. “Mike Lawler helped make Mike Johnson speaker.”

Watch the Midwest.

The bulk of potential Democratic opportunities to pick up Republican-held seats will be in the always-competitive swing districts in New York and California. But the Democratic strategist says the Midwest may be a particular region to watch for surprising Democratic wins. There are just a few choice Republicans there who won narrow races in 2022 but who Democrats might be able to knock-off in a higher turnout election.

Freshman Rep. John James of Michigan is the sort of Republican who could fall victim to a well-funded, high-quality Democratic challenger, especially with a competitive open-seat Senate race and the presidential race goosing turnout. It’s harder to see that working for the eventual Democratic opponent of another freshman Republican, Rep. Zach Nunn of Iowa, who just barely won his race in 2022. In Iowa, however, there are no marquee races statewide at the top of the ticket and Biden is unlikely to compete there.

But in a world where House majorities are getting smaller and smaller, every race counts. And Democrats will need to win every single competitive race to have a chance of wresting control from the GOP in 2024.

Notable and Quotable 

“We will see if this is a legal and valid election.” 

—Rep. Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, asked by NBC’s Kristen Welker whether she would commit in advance to certifying the results of the 2024 election, January 7, 2024

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.