Why Iowa Still Matters

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis makes his way through the Iowa State Fair on August 12, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Happy Monday! Politico reported that, according to three people who were at a bar in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, over the weekend, “officials with the DeSantis-allied super PAC, Never Back Down, got into a shouting match with a Trump backer not affiliated with the campaign wearing Trump garb. The exact nature of what was said is disputed, though each side agreed that it centered on the Trump hats some of the patrons were sporting.” A former Fox News host once said that wearing a bow tie is like having “a middle finger protruding from your neck,” and apparently MAGA gear can have a similar effect on some folks.

Up to Speed

  • Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that he is elevating U.S. Attorney David Weiss to serve as special counsel in his long-running investigation into President Joe Biden’s son. The news follows the collapse of a plea deal negotiated by Weiss and Hunter Biden’s attorneys involving misdemeanor tax violations and a felony gun offense. “This move by Attorney General Garland is part of the Justice Department’s efforts to attempt a Biden family coverup in light of the House Oversight Committee’s mounting evidence of President Joe Biden’s role in his family’s schemes selling ‘the brand’ for millions of dollars to foreign nationals,” House Oversight Chairman James Comer responded in a statement.
  • Fulton County prosecutors reportedly have text messages and emails linking Donald Trump’s lawyers to a voter machine breach in Coffey County, Georgia, that occurred in January 2021, CNN reported Sunday. The news comes as District Attorney Fani Willis is expected to present evidence to a grand jury this week from her yearslong investigation into the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. 
  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign reversed course after the Democratic presidential candidate told NBC News on Sunday that he would support a federal abortion ban after three months in a woman’s pregnancy. “Once a child is viable, outside the womb, I think then the state has an interest in protecting the child,” Kennedy said in his initial answer to NBC News. But his campaign spokesperson later walked back that answer, telling reporters in a statement that RFK Jr. misunderstood the question, always supports a “woman’s right to choose,” and “does not support legislation banning abortion.”

Banking on Iowa

Mike Huckabee in 2008. Rick Santorum in 2012. Ted Cruz in 2016. For all the hype that comes with its “first-in-the-nation GOP caucus state” title, Iowa doesn’t have the greatest track record for picking Republican presidential nominees.

Try telling that to Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “We’re not supposed to” pick winners, Kaufmann tells The Dispatch in an interview. “Iowa’s supposed to kick the tires. Iowa’s supposed to ask the key questions. Iowa is basically testing the waters for the rest of the country.”

Kaufmann is giddy that Republican presidential candidates are descending on his home state this week for the Iowa State Fair, a must-attend event for GOP presidential candidates ahead of the state’s caucuses in January. And he argues that his state’s unique nominating process is key to hardening candidates for the rigors of a national campaign. 

“A caucus is going to force these candidates to go out and meet people individually, and more particularly on caucus night,” Kaufmann says. “It takes a little longer, sometimes it’s a little messier. And it can be frustrating.”

A strong showing in Iowa can bulldoze the field by giving well-performing presidential candidates a boost with donors and voters in other early states. (Recall Barack Obama’s surprise Iowa victory in 2008 that catapulted him to near polling parity with then-Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.) Meanwhile, a weak showing can cause candidates to crash and burn in the polls at a critical point in the race, often forcing early dropouts.

Indeed, most Republican presidential candidates are giving Iowa everything they’ve got this cycle. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pledged to visit each of the state’s 99 counties while a Tim Scott-aligned super PAC announced last month a $40 million fall ad buy across Iowa and other early states this fall.

Scott is hitting Iowa’s airwaves this summer, too. “I have the deepest appreciation for the hardworking farmers who feed our nation and fuel our cars,” Scott says in a new radio ad that will air this week on the Brownfield Iowa Ag Network and shared first with The Dispatch. “As president, I’ll support the production of ethanol and other homegrown biofuels. I will stop China from buying our farmland, and I will fight for fair trade to ensure our farmers have access to foreign markets. God bless Iowa and the bountiful harvest you provide to our nation each and every year.”

A notable exception to the Republican field’s Iowa-centric campaign trend is former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is keeping the focus on New Hampshire even after his disappointing sixth-place finish there in 2016. His absence has not gone unnoticed by Hawkeye State Republicans. Unprompted, Kaufmann called out Christie twice in 20 minutes for his decision to “blow off” Iowa.

Kaufmann also pushed back on speculation in some media outlets that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is privately cozying up to DeSantis as she maintains public neutrality in the GOP primary race. “It’s much ado about nothing,” says Kaufmann, whose working relationship with Reynolds dates back to their time in the state legislature. “She didn’t endorse in 2016 either. Now, she endorsed in 2020. But that’s because we had an incumbent president and really didn’t have anybody viable that was running against him.”

Reynolds is taking the spotlight at the Iowa State Fair this week, hosting “fair-side chats” to boost Republican candidates’ engagement with Republican caucusgoers. Some candidates used their time onstage with Reynolds to knock the frontrunner and former President Donald Trump, who made a quick stop at the fair on Saturday and notably skipped the chance to sit down with Reynolds weeks after he publicly blasted her for not endorsing him this time around. 

“Anybody that skips sitting down with Governor Kim Reynolds is missing an opportunity just as much as they are if they skip a debate,” former Vice President Mike Pence said onstage in a not-so-subtle hit at Trump, who still leads by double digits in Iowa state polls and was greeted with an enthusiastic reception from Iowans at the state fair.

But the most headline-grabbing candidate over the weekend was Ron DeSantis, who faced hecklers left and right at the fair and somehow kept his cool even as a jet flew overhead with a banner that read “Be likable, Ron!”

Here’s National Review’s Dan McLaughlin, who spent Saturday following the Florida governor around the fair: 

Pro-abortion and LGBTQIA+ protesters (one in “Thank God for Abortion” attire) tried to disrupt the talk with cowbells and whistles, and ultimately had to be carted away by Iowa state troopers. This would be a theme of the day: DeSantis is a textbook case of the guy who attracts flak because he’s over the target. He gets protested because he’s worth attacking. Trouble was compounded when the power went out on the mikes during his closing answer.

Candidate Advice?

If you missed the Wall Street Journal’s entertaining primer on “How to Avoid Looking Like a Fool, Iowa State Fair Edition,” Kaufmann offered The Dispatch three more ground rules for surviving the fair without a gaffe: 

  1. “If you’re eating something that’s deep fat fried and it’s messy—if it’s dripping, or if you have any kind of facial hair, do not let a camera in front of you.”
  2. “If you’re going to eat two or three of those deep fat fried items, you better leave three or four hours in between. There’s nothing worse than 90 degrees at the fair—cameras in your face—with a stomach ache. Do your selfies in the shade.”
  3. “Even after the 17th grandchild portfolio you gotta look at, you better darn well look grandma in the face and actually get her to believe that A) you care, and B) that is the most beautiful baby you’ve ever seen—even if it looks like a remake of E.T.”

Notable and Quotable

“Some people have asked that I not use their names because of this institutional fear that it might impact you down the road. This is the time to meet the moment.”

—Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips speaking with NBC News about Democratic governors he’d like to see challenge Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination, August 13

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