Former President Donald Trump has lobbed insults at Iowa’s popular Republican governor, broken with the state’s evangelical pastors, quarreled with an influential Christian leader there, skipped its key political gatherings and has spent less time in the state than most of his top competitors.
But if Iowa Republicans are bothered by any of Trump’s affronts, it has yet to affect his support in the first caucus state on the GOP’s nominating calendar. Heading into Friday, when nearly every Republican presidential contender will descend on Des Moines for the state GOP’s Lincoln Dinner, Trump remains the unquestioned front-runner in Iowa and nationwide. Behind him is a field of candidates straining to navigate a race overshadowed so far by the former president’s popularity among Republicans and his mounting legal problems – two realities that appear intertwined.
Those legal troubles threatened once again to upend the political scene on the eve of the dinner. Special counsel Jack Smith on Thursday brought additional charges against Trump in the case over his alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving the White House, accusing the former president of obstruction and two aides of attempting to delete security camera footage after the Justice Department had issued a subpoena. A potential third indictment of Trump related to the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol, looms over the weekend as well.
Several candidates are flashing troubling signals less than six months before Iowans head to their caucuses to pick a nominee. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is slashing staff and rebooting his campaign amid stalled support and spending woes. Former Vice President Mike Pence, at risk of not reaching the donor threshold to qualify for the first GOP debate, is pleading for $1 contributions. And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has yet to break out in polling despite being the second major Republican to enter the race.
Perhaps only South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott enters Friday’s Lincoln Dinner with any tailwinds. Deep-pocketed donors have lately expressed renewed interest in Scott, and a new Fox Business poll of Iowa showed him closing in on DeSantis for second place in the race. Still, he remains well behind Trump, who has so far publicly demonstrated little concern for Scott’s challenge. Ahead of the event, Trump attacked DeSantis on his Truth Social platform Thursday, calling the Florida governor a “COMPLETE DISASTER for American Farmers and the people of Iowa.”
Thirteen presidential candidates are scheduled to address Friday’s dinner, the Iowa Republican Party’s largest annual fundraiser and a must-stop on the campaign circuit that not even Trump could avoid. Among those speaking are leading contenders DeSantis, Pence, Scott, Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. More recent entrants such as former Texas Rep. Will Hurd and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez will look to give their long-shot bids a boost as well. The lineup notably excludes former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose campaign is staked on a strong primary performance in New Hampshire.
Trump will address the reception last, a sign that he still commands deference from the party even as he has upended the state’s nominating traditions once again.
The former president has not aggressively campaigned in person, making just four visits to Iowa since declaring his 2024 candidacy in November. His reticence to get behind anti-abortion policies lately has frustrated some evangelical leaders in the state, where Republicans recently enacted a six-week ban on the procedure that was later blocked by a judge. He has repeatedly ducked events in the state that have featured other contenders, most recently the Family Leadership Summit, organized by influential Christian conservative Bob Vander Plaats, where candidates fielded questions from former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Trump’s campaign cited a scheduling conflict, but his allies painted Vander Plaats, a once and current critic of the former president, as a biased host.
And, in an outburst that would be wildly counterproductive for perhaps any other candidate, Trump ripped into Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for remaining neutral in the state’s nominating fight.
“I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won,” Trump wrote on Truth Social about his support for Reynolds when she ran for a first full term in 2018. “Now, she wants to remain ‘NEUTRAL.’ I don’t invite her to events!”
Reynolds has said she will appear with any Republican candidate who invites her, schedule permitting. Most of the field will sit down with the governor for a series of chats at the State Fair in August. Trump has made no such commitment.
Other Republican candidates quickly rallied to Reynolds’ defense, clearly identifying Trump’s attacks on a popular GOP governor as a critical misstep. Haley called Reynolds a “conservative rockstar” in a tweet. Burgum told CNN’s Erin Burnett that Reynolds was “doing a great job being neutral.” Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting DeSantis, bought time on Iowa’s airwaves for an ad that controversially featured AI-generated audio of Trump’s voice reading his Truth Social post attacking Reynolds.
Yet, a Fox Business survey of Iowa Republicans taken in the days after showed Trump’s commanding lead remained intact.
The stickiness of Trump’s support in Iowa comes even as campaigns and their supportive super PACs have outspent the former president’s allies 8-to-1 on television ads in the state. Never Back Down has spent the most on commercials to date, about $4 million.
Trust in the Mission PAC, which is behind Scott, is planning to spend $18 million but that includes an eight-figure investment to reserve fall advertising in hopes it can boost his campaign as he is gaining momentum.
Candidates have also scheduled more time in the state than Trump, who will leave Iowa for a Saturday rally in Pennsylvania after Friday’s dinner. Scott appeared with Reynolds in Iowa on Thursday night, while DeSantis kicked off a bus tour through the state hosted by Never Back Down, an arrangement that is demonstrative of his campaign’s financial troubles that nevertheless blurs the line that is supposed to exist between candidates and outside political committees.
Haley will hold a town hall in Iowa City on Saturday. Pence has two events planned in Iowa for the weekend.
In recent political history, the Iowa caucuses have served as a first test of a presidential candidate’s viability, but not necessarily as a kingmaker. Its role has been to narrow the field, but its past winners – Ted Cruz in 2016, Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008 – ultimately ceded the nomination to someone else.
The intensifying focus on Iowa by the candidates this year is illustrative of the challenge ahead for those Republicans who increasingly view the outcome there as a more definitive verdict on whether anyone can wrestle the party from Trump. Even DeSantis, who once harbored ambitions of mounting a national campaign through the fall, has retreated to the early nominating contests with more people in his orbit now viewing Iowa as must-win or close to it.
“We’re not getting a mulligan on 2024,” DeSantis told Iowa Republicans in Chariton on Thursday. “You either go, you get the job done or you don’t. I will get the job done.”