Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is eyeing a critical opportunity to counter former President Donald Trump in Iowa as he sets off on his 2024 White House campaign.
Even as Trump has taken an early lead in national polls, Republicans see an opening for DeSantis in the storied, first-in-the-nation caucus state, a traditional proving ground and potential source of early momentum for White House hopefuls.
Not only has he already racked up a long list of endorsements from prominent Iowa Republicans, but a super PAC supporting his campaign has launched an extensive voter contact and organizing operation in the state and he began his 2024 campaign tour in West Des Moines on Tuesday evening.
“There’s a lot of openness with Republican caucus-goers in Iowa,” an adviser to the group told The Hill last week. “You don’t have to take my word for it, you just have to go on the ground and see it.”
Even before his campaign launch last week, Never Back Down, the main super PAC backing DeSantis’s presidential bid, rounded up endorsements from dozens of Iowa state legislators and helped organize a crowd to attend an impromptu appearance by DeSantis in Des Moines.
The group has also hired a team of 10 staffers and nearly 200 canvassers in Iowa to begin reaching out to caucus-goers and has already knocked on more than 50,000 doors in the state, according to a spokesperson. The super PAC’s canvassers are being trained out of an office in West Des Moines.
DeSantis himself has been direct about the critical role he sees the Hawkeye State playing in his 2024 presidential campaign. In an interview on “Fox & Friends” on Monday, the governor insisted that he is “competing everywhere,” but acknowledged that “Iowa is very important” and would serve as an early stage for him to sharpen his contrast with Trump.
“They had mentioned there may be some differences with me and Donald Trump, and I think that those differences redound to my benefit in a place like Iowa,” he said.
“I mean, for example, you know, he’s taken the side of Disney in our fight down here in Florida. I’m standing for parents. I’m standing for children. And I think a multibillion-dollar company that sexualizes children is not consistent with the values of Florida or the values of a place like Iowa.”
DeSantis’s supporters also said that the governor’s signing of a six-week abortion ban in his home state last month could help him bolster his credentials in Iowa, where the state Supreme Court is considering whether a “fetal heartbeat” law approved by legislators in 2018 should be allowed to take effect.
In contrast, Trump came under fire from some Republicans after he suggested that new abortion restrictions had weighed down the GOP in the 2022 midterm elections and declined to say whether he would support a federal abortion ban if he wins back the White House next year.
Iowa is only the first stop in DeSantis’s debut campaign swing. He’ll travel to New Hampshire on Thursday and South Carolina on Friday before returning to Iowa over the weekend to attend Sen. Joni Ernst’s (R-Iowa) annual “Roast and Ride” fundraiser alongside a handful of other 2024 hopefuls, including former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Trump hasn’t yet said whether he will attend the event in Des Moines, but he’s slated to travel to Iowa on Wednesday and Thursday, when he’ll participate in a Fox News town hall.
The former president was scheduled to hold a rally in Iowa earlier this month but scrapped the event amid concerns of severe weather. He’s only been to the state once since announcing his 2024 campaign in November, holding a rally in Davenport in March.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said DeSantis already appears to be out-organizing Trump in Iowa, pointing to Never Back Down’s early work in the state and the high premium that DeSantis’s team has placed on the caucuses.
And while the caucuses are still roughly eight months away, a strong showing in Iowa could be a game changer for DeSantis, who’s still trailing Trump in Iowa and elsewhere by double-digit margins, according to most recent polls.
“He has to change the narrative, and the best way he can change that narrative is by winning Iowa,” O’Connell said.
And there are signs that DeSantis is heading into Iowa with some momentum. Thirty-seven Iowa state legislators have already thrown their support behind his bid, and his campaign is riding high from a massive fundraising windfall; he raised more than $8 million in the first 24 hours after his 2024 announcement last week.
“Governor DeSantis has the strongest Iowa endorsement list in modern caucus history, and we look forward to building on that momentum this week by taking his message all across the state,” a senior DeSantis campaign official said.
Of course, the Iowa caucuses aren’t the be-all and end-all of the nominating contest. The winners of the last three Republican caucuses in which an incumbent wasn’t running went on to lose the GOP’s nomination. Trump notably finished second to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the 2016 Iowa caucuses.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable prize, O’Connell said.
“You capture a state and then they show your name for a week,” O’Connell said. “It can be like capturing lightning in a bottle.”