SIOUX CENTER — Standing at the precipice of a likely presidential campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Iowans Saturday that the GOP must reject a “culture of losing” and embrace a positive vision for the future if they want to win in 2024.
“Both Florida and Iowa show strong leadership and a bold agenda can defeat the left in this country,” he said. “But there’s no substitute for victory. We must reject the culture of losing that’s 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.”
It’s an implicit rebuke of former President Donald Trump, who appears to lead the current 2024 presidential field as a front-runner — even after losing the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden and promoting candidates who lost their 2022 midterm battles.
The comments came as Trump was scheduled to hold a dueling evening event in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. But Trump canceled the outdoor rally at Water Works Park in Des Moines, citing possible severe weather. A tornado watch was in effect for Polk County through the afternoon and evening.
DeSantis, who is expected to jump into the presidential race imminently, did not discuss Trump by name at his Saturday events. But he echoed calls from many Iowa Republicans who say they want to move forward rather than focusing on past grievances.
“If we make the 2024 election a referendum on Joe Biden and his failures, and we provide a positive alternative … Republicans will win across the board,” DeSantis said. “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.”
Despite Trump’s absence in the state on Saturday, his presence in the race loomed large as many attendees at DeSantis’ events compared the two men.
DeSantis took advantage of the moment, adding a previously unscheduled stop at a Des Moines restaurant just minutes away from where Trump had been scheduled to appear. As lightning flashed in the distance, DeSantis and his wife, Casey, stood on a table bench surrounded by onlookers who cheered them on and television cameras that caught the moment.
DeSantis flips burgers and talks breakfast pizza in Sioux Center
DeSantis began the day by speaking at U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra’s annual picnic fundraiser in Sioux Center. The event attracted a who’s who of Iowa’s top elected officials, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, Iowa Treasurer Roby Smith, Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird and a bevy of state legislators.
Afterward, he flipped pork burgers with Feenstra and Reynolds, posing for photos from the crowd of assembled press.
Later, he stopped to join a smaller group of supporters and interested Republicans at the Sioux Center Pizza Ranch, where plates of fried chicken and pizza sat mostly untouched as the crowd mingled with the governor, clamoring for selfies and autographs.
Appearing with his wife, DeSantis spoke briefly to the crowd, saying their family is looking forward to the Iowa State Fair. He also praised another Iowa culinary favorite, Casey’s breakfast pizza.
“These gas stations, that’s a huge deal for us, because we’re stopping, we’re on the road,” DeSantis said. “… I’ll tell you, and I’m a very tough critic on the gas station. Casey’s is legit. That breakfast pizza is legit.”
Attendees of Cedar Rapids fundraiser compare Trump, DeSantis
On Saturday evening, the couple spoke at a Republican Party of Iowa fundraiser in Cedar Rapids. DeSantis again emphasized the importance of winning in 2024, touting his commanding reelection win and down-ballot Florida victories in 2022.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done in Florida. We’re proud of what you have done in Iowa,” DeSantis said in ending his speech. “But I have only begun to fight.”
Several attendees of the Cedar Rapids event expressed their hesitation about Trump’s candidacy — even those who plan to vote for him.
Kathy Potts, a 64-year-old Cedar Rapids activist, put it like this: “I like Donald Trump, but I hate Donald Trump.” She called Trump a “bully” and “mean” — but she also said Trump “led the country better than anybody else,” and she intends to support him in 2024.
Others at the Republican fundraiser said they’re open to voting for someone else.
“With the Republican Party, I don’t think Trump’s the worst thing,” said John Copley, the 20-year-old president of the Dordt University College Republicans. “But I do think DeSantis is stronger, if he does run.”
Jeff Sorensen, a 63-year-old Muscatine resident, said he hasn’t always appreciated Trump’s “demeanor,” although he supports Trump’s policies. Sorensen said he appreciates the executive experience that governors bring to the Oval Office.
“I think Gov. DeSantis has done a fantastic job over a number of years in Florida, and I want to hear what he has to say,” Sorensen said. “And hopefully he’ll get in the race and tell us that, one of these days.”
DeSantis builds up Iowa operation; PAC rolls out endorsements
This was the Florida governor’s second trip to Iowa, and he arrived with a growing apparatus ready to support his likely presidential run.
Never Back Down PAC, the main outside spending organization boosting his candidacy, parked a branded bus outside the Sioux Center event and coordinated the rollout of about three dozen legislative endorsements. They included the No. 2 in command lawmakers in each chamber: House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl and Senate President Amy Sinclair.
In all, the endorsements represent a diverse cross-section of the Iowa Republican legislative caucus, including members on the far right of the spectrum, as well as moderates, religious conservatives, leaders and rank-and-file members.
State Rep. Steve Holt, a Republican from Denison who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, is among those who endorsed DeSantis.
“I like his military experience, because having spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, I know what kind of leadership skills that creates in folks,” Holt said Saturday while attending the Sioux Center event. “I love what he’s done as the governor of Florida. … I think ‘Never Back Down’ is a good campaign slogan for him.”
Holt said DeSantis called him a few days ago after he had decided to make his endorsement, and they spoke about the need to improve the U.S. military. Holt said he was among a small group invited to fly with DeSantis on a private plane between his events in Sioux Center and Cedar Rapids Saturday.
In addition to lining up endorsements, the Never Back Down PAC has also been hiring Republican staffers who would help support a DeSantis run in Iowa. They include Tyler Campbell, a Des Moines consultant, and Ryan Koopmans, a top adviser to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.
According to an NBC News report, DeSantis’ political operation is set to move into a new Florida campaign headquarters — a move that will trigger federal disclosure requirements within 15 days.
DeSantis served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before he was elected governor in 2018 by about 32,400 votes. He defied national trends in 2022 and sailed to reelection by about 1.5 million votes.
According to a March Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, DeSantis was viewed favorably by 74% of Iowa Republicans and unfavorably by 6%. Another 20% were not sure.
Independent Iowans were nearly evenly split on DeSantis, with 35% viewing him favorably, 33% viewing him unfavorably and 32% saying they weren’t sure.
DeSantis has emerged in national polling as the early favorite to challenge Trump.
According to a Real Clear Politics rolling average of national primary polls, Trump leads 53.5% to DeSantis’ 22.2%. No other declared or potential candidate cracks double digits.
In a statement, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart was critical of his appearance.
“No matter who ends up being the GOP nominee, it’s clear MAGA Republicans support the most extreme candidates in our history,” she said. “I’m ready to protect our freedoms, strengthen our democracy and finish the job with President Joe Biden.”
People gathered to see Trump disappointed; he vows to ‘reschedule soon’
Trump posted the rally cancellation on Truth Social: “Stay tuned, we will reschedule soon,” he wrote. “Be safe out there!”
People who had gathered for the rally expressed disappointment at the cancellation, including Charity Baker, who had driven down from Clear Lake with a co-worker for the event.
“It’s a huge bummer,” said Baker, 44. “I’ve never seen him in person, I’ve never heard him speak in person, and this would have been really monumental.”
Baker, a doctor, said she’s committed to supporting Trump in 2024 and isn’t considering other candidates this year.
“I like Ron DeSantis,” she said. “I think it will be his turn in 2028.”
She said she likes that Trump is not a politician and said he’s exposed corruption within the government.
“When he was president we had a better economy and less inflation and lower gas prices and lower prices of everything,” Baker said. “And he has a business mindset, which I think fits in the role of the presidency better than a politician does.”
Meanwhile, outside the park gates early Saturday afternoon, fellow Republican presidential candidate and Michigan businessman Perry Johnson spoke amid a downpour, touting his “Two cents to save America” plan to cut government spending.
Also on Saturday, the Trump campaign announced the endorsements of about 150 grassroots Republicans and elected officials across Iowa, including about a dozen state legislators.
A news release said the endorsements show Trump’s “commanding position in the Hawkeye State.”
“We are proud to receive the support of Iowa’s most conservative and committed Republicans,” Marshall Moreau, the Trump campaign’s Iowa state director said in a statement. “These grassroots leaders have long fought for the America First Movement and are just the beginning of an army that President Trump is building to win the First-in-the-Nation Republican caucuses.”
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at [email protected] or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.
Katie Akin is a politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Ron DeSantis came to Iowa; Donald Trump didn’t, but his presence felt.