The weekend could hardly have gone better for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Although he has not formally launched his presidential campaign, he landed more Iowa legislative endorsements than any other GOP candidate has had in decades. He drew large crowds in Sioux Center at a fundraiser for U.S. Representative Randy Feenstra and in Cedar Rapids at an event for the Republican Party of Iowa.
Finally, DeSantis made an unscheduled stop in Des Moines, where former President Donald Trump—who had hoped to upstage his leading Republican rival—canceled a rally earlier in the day.
Job number one for DeSantis was to turn the GOP race for the presidency into a two-person contest. At an elite level, he has already accomplished that task, more than six months before the Iowa caucuses.
TWO BIG NAMES ENDORSE EARLY
Prominent Iowa Republicans have remained remarkably loyal to Trump throughout his presidency, the attempted coup on January 6, and two impeachments. This past week provided the first public confirmation that within the Iowa GOP establishment, many people are eager to move on.
The Des Moines Register was first to report on May 11 that Iowa Senate President Amy Sinclair and House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl were on board with DeSantis. The second-ranking Republicans in each chamber praised the governor’s record of accomplishments in Florida and characterized him as someone who can take the country “forward.” Windschitl was particularly blunt:
“We need a leader that’s looking forward towards the future, not a leader that’s looking in the rearview mirror and potentially going to be vindictive towards other people,” he said in an interview. “We need somebody that’s accountable to the people that has proven in their state that they can do this job and take that same prosperity and spread it throughout America.”
Speaking to Robert Leonard on May 12, Sinclair said she doesn’t think Trump can’t win a general election, but she sees DeSantis as a “better choice” for president, because he has a plan to improve the country “that’s achievable—he’s done it in Florida.” She went on to say he has a “proven track record” in a large state that’s very diverse.
As I’ll discuss in a moment, the message from Sinclair and Windschitl perfectly matches the governor’s pitch to Republican audiences.
WIDE-RANGING APPEAL IN GOP CIRCLES
The pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down rolled out 35 more Iowa legislative endorsements on May 12. They include Republicans from every corner of the state, in every age cohort, members of leadership and first-termers, prominent social conservatives (Skyler Wheeler and Dennis Guth) as well as relative moderates (Brent Siegrist and Hans Wilz).
Iowa legislative endorsements don’t automatically translate into votes. Highly touted candidates including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty have attracted support from many sitting lawmakers, only to falter and withdraw from the presidential race before the caucuses.
However, the massive show of support for DeSantis eclipses anything seen in a competitive Republican caucus here since then Texas Governor George W. Bush was running for president in 1999.
For context: no one in the Republican field had more than sixteen legislative endorsements ahead of the 2008 caucuses. Going into the 2012 caucuses, the field was even more splintered, with no GOP contender backed by more than ten sitting Iowa lawmakers. It was the same story prior to the 2016 caucuses: Senator Ted Cruz had the most legislative endorsements (twelve), followed by Marco Rubio (eight), Jeb Bush (seven), Carly Fiorina (six), and Chris Christie (five).
Here’s the current list of DeSantis endorsers in the legislature. Where applicable, I’ve mentioned which candidates they supported before previous competitive Republican caucuses. (Most of the current GOP lawmakers were not serving in the legislature prior to 2016.)
- President Amy Sinclair (backed Scott Walker in 2015)
- Majority Whip Waylon Brown
- Mark Costello (endorsed Walker)
- Adrian Dickey
- Jesse Green
- Dennis Guth (backed Ted Cruz in 2015)
- Mike Klimesh
- Dave Rowley
- Ken Rozenboom
- Tom Shipley (endorsed Walker, then Marco Rubio in 2015)
- Scott Webster
- Dan Zumbach
- Majority Leader Matt Windschitl (endorsed Tim Pawlenty in 2011)
- Speaker Pro Tem John Wills (endorsed Marco Rubio in 2016)
- Majority Whip Henry Stone
- Assistant Majority Leader Jon Dunwell
- Assistant Majority Leader Brent Siegrist (was not serving in the legislature but backed John Kasich in 2016)
- Brian Best (endorsed Walker, then Rubio)
- Ken Carlson
- Taylor Collins
- Tom Determann
- Dave Deyoe (backed Scott Walker, then Chris Christie in 2015)
- Dean Fisher (backed Walker, then Rick Santorum)
- Dan Gehlbach
- Bill Gustoff
- Bob Henderson
- Steven Holt (backed Ted Cruz in 2015)
- Ann Meyer
- Norlin Mommsen
- Tom Moore
- Carter Nordman
- David Sieck (backed John Kasich in 2015)
- Phil Thompson
- Mike Vondran
- Skyler Wheeler
- Hans Wilz
- Devon Wood
Establishment support doesn’t always translate into grassroots strength. Take Donald Trump, who was backed by just one Republican lawmaker during his first campaign (Brad Zaun), yet finished second in the 2016 caucuses, not far behind Cruz.
Nevertheless, it’s a win for DeSantis to lock down so much support before he’s even officially a candidate.
Incidentally, the Never Back Down PAC hired two high-powered consultants last month: Tyler Campbell (a former campaign manager for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig) and Ryan Koopmans (a former chief of staff for Governor Kim Reynolds who was a senior adviser to her re-election campaign).
TRUMP RETAINS SUBSTANTIAL ESTABLISHMENT SUPPORT
The former president’s campaign hired Marshall Moreau (Brenna Bird’s former campaign manager) to run the Iowa operation, and Eric Branstad (son of former Governor Terry Branstad) and State Representative Bobby Kaufmann (son of Republican Party of Iowa state chair Jeff Kaufmann) as senior advisers.
Trump has also secured endorsements from eighteen current legislators and former U.S. Representative Rod Blum. Most of the legislative endorsements have been public since March, when the campaign rolled out a batch of well-known eastern Iowa supporters. Here’s the current list, according to a Trump campaign news release from May 13.
- President Pro Tem Brad Zaun (backed Mitt Romney in 2007, Michele Bachmann in 2011, Scott Walker, then Trump in 2015)
- Lynn Evans
- Julian Garrett (backed Walker in 2015)
- Tim Kraayenbrink
- Charlie McClintock
- Jeff Reichman
- Cherielynn Westrich
- Brooke Boden
- Steven Bradley
- Mark Cisneros
- Cindy Golding
- Stan Gustafson
- Heather Hora
- Craig Johnson
- Bobby Kaufmann (backed Marco Rubio in 2015)
- Anne Osmundson
- Brad Sherman
- Derek Wulf
AN EARLY LOOK AT THE DESANTIS CASE
DeSantis has a long way to go to demonstrate that he can bring masses of Iowans to the caucuses early next year. But he has already cleared the first hurdle by positioning himself as the alternative to Trump, rather than one person in a large field.
A future Bleeding Heartland post will discuss the DeSantis case to Republican audiences in more detail. His remarks in Sioux Center (video, transcript) focused on his record in Florida, which he portrayed as a road map for the GOP to win nationwide. He delivered plenty of applause lines by attacking favorite boogeymen for the base: COVID-19 mitigation policies, undocumented immigrants, transgender people, controversial books or topics in schools, crime in large cities, diversity/equity/inclusion in the armed forces.
Although DeSantis has not yet criticized Trump by name in his public appearances, he spent a fair amount of time telling the Sioux Center audience about his military background. (Trump never served.)
DeSantis is also positioning himself as a more electable alternative:
But I think the hope is, both Florida and Iowa show strong leadership and a bold agenda can defeat the left in this country.
But there’s no substitute for victory. We must reject the culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years. The time for excuses is over. We’ve got to demonstrate the courage to lead and the strength to win.
If we do that, if we make [the] 2024 election a referendum on Joe Biden and his failures, and if we provide a positive alternative for the future of this country, Republicans will win across the board.
If we do not do that—if we get distracted, if we focus the election on the past, or on other side issues—then I think the Democrats are going to beat us again, and I think it will be very difficult to recover from that defeat.
How popular the DeSantis agenda would be nationally is an open question; Iowa and Florida were among the few states that experienced a red wave in 2022. Still, this narrative will likely resonate with Iowa Republicans, who often resist evidence that GOP positions on issues like abortion are broadly unpopular.
The DeSantis political operation has been testing messages with Iowa Republican audiences for some time. More recently, his team commissioned polling in the early states and shared some of the results with Jonathan Martin of Politico.
They surveyed three kickoff states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — in the days after Trump was indicted in Manhattan last month. This was as Trump was getting his national polling bump and after months of the former president’s attacks on DeSantis. The governor still enjoyed a higher net favorability than Trump among likely Republican voters in all three states, according to the research, a sign that the GOP electorate remains very much open to his candidacy.
DeSantis and Trump have similar favorable ratings in Iowa, but 24 percent of Republicans there have an unfavorable view of Trump while only 14 percent of Iowa Republicans feel unfavorably toward DeSantis. Perhaps most notable in the conservative-dominated caucuses, DeSantis was viewed favorably by nearly 80 percent of those who call themselves “very conservative.”
The events of this weekend are a warning sign for Trump, whose large reservoir of support gives him a better chance in a large field than in a one-on-one contest.
But the apparent momentum for DeSantis is worse news for lesser-known candidates, hoping to break through in Iowa. Of the 98 Republicans currently serving in the Iowa House or Senate, 55 have already committed to DeSantis or Trump. That doesn’t leave much room for someone like Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, or Vivek Ramaswamy to win headlines with endorsements. And it may leave many caucus-goers feeling that if they don’t want to stick with Trump, they have only one viable alternative.
Top image: Screenshot from C-SPAN video of a speech by Ron DeSantis at Randy Feenstra’s fundraiser on May 13.