DeSantis-Trump duel fails to materialize, but Iowa Republican voters speak their minds

DeSantis-Trump duel fails to materialize, but Iowa Republican voters speak their minds

The mano a mano showdown in Iowa between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis failed to materialize.


And yet the weekend still provided some illumination on the state of the Republican presidential primary campaign in Iowa.

This was to be the weekend when both Trump and DeSantis — the former president and the current governor of Florida, the perceived and polling front-runners in the 2024 campaign to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate — were to attend competing campaign events in Iowa on the same day.

Tornado warnings in central Iowa, however, dashed the split-screen moment of the leading presidential prospects courting Republican voters in the proving ground state ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Trump canceled his planned outdoor rally for Saturday evening in Des Moines, citing warnings of potential severe weather, including significant rain and winds reaching 70 miles per hour — neither of which materialized.

DeSantis had no such issues: he attended two previously announced events — Western Iowa Congressman Randy Feenstra’s fundraiser in Sioux Center on Saturday morning, then a fundraiser in Cedar Rapids in the evening — before finishing a long Saturday with an unannounced event in downtown Des Moines not far from where Trump had planned his rally.

But while the expected showdown of simultaneous campaigning did no materialize, the weekend still shed some light on how Iowa Republican voters feel about Trump and DeSantis.

Trump finished second to Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, and won Iowa in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

Trump, DeSantis announce Iowa supporters

Both campaigns paired their Iowa trips with announcements of Iowa endorsements.

The super PAC that is supporting DeSantis, Never Back Down, announced a batch of 37 endorsements from Iowa state legislators, including Iowa House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, from Missouri Valley, and Iowa Senate President Amy Sinclair, from Allerton.

Trump’s campaign announced the endorsements of 150 “elected and grassroots” Iowans, with each of the state’s 99 counties represented. Some of the more familiar names on that list include state legislators Bobby Kaufmann and Brad Zaun, and former Eastern Iowa Congressman Rod Blum.

DeSantis courts Republican voters in Cedar Rapids

In Cedar Rapids, DeSantis burnished his reputation as a conservative governor willing to push hard for conservative policies and embrace conservative culture fights. That includes taking on a political fight with the Walt Disney Company and signing legislation banning mask and vaccine mandates, banning the teaching of sexual orientation and gender-identity in grades K-3, and blocking his state’s colleges from promoting, supporting or maintaining programs or campus activities on diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory — the besieged academic framework that says racism is systemic.

Speaking to a packed ballroom at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center during an Iowa GOP party fundraiser Saturday and flanked by a number of high-profile Iowa Republicans — including Gov. Kim Reynolds, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and Iowa congresswomen Ashley Hinson of Marion and Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa — DeSantis drew parallels between Iowa and Florida, particularly in regard to newly passed legislation that restricts what can be taught in schools and that prohibits gender-affirming surgeries for minors.

“I think both Florida and Iowa and what we’ve been able to accomplish, should give people around this country a little bit of hope,” DeSantis said.

He mentioned media reports referring to Iowa as “the Florida of the Midwest,” due to state lawmakers’ passage of new restrictions on LGBTQ topics in public schools and library books, part of Republicans’ attempts to rein in what they see as inappropriate content in schools.

“I started watching more of what they did during this legislative session,” DeSantis said. “I’m like, man, they’ve done an awful lot. Maybe it’s just that Florida is the Iowa of the Southeast. I don’t know.”

The remark drew large applause.

The 44-year-old governor also sprinkled his remarks with subtle, indirect jabs at Trump.

“I think if we make this election about a referendum on (President) Joe Biden and his failed policies, and we provide a positive alternative to take America in the new direction, I think Republicans will win across the board,” DeSantis said. “If the election is about anything else — if it’s about distractions, side issues, all these other things — if we allow Biden to just sit in his basement again and not have to be held accountable, then I think the Democrats are likely to seize that power that we know they will abuse.”

Trump is embroiled in several legal battles and has been indicted on campaign finance violations and found civilly liable for the sexual abuse of author and journalist E. Jean Carroll.

During an interview-style discussion with Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, DeSantis was asked where he gets his determination to stand up to being “piled on with criticism.”

DeSantis responded saying, “So you can call me any name you want. You can try and run any hit piece that you want. I’m not backing down because of any of that.”

Trump has repeatedly referred to DeSantis as “DeSanctimonious,” a nickname he’s coined as he’s taken shots at the Florida governor in anticipation of a possible 2024 challenge.

Former Trump supporters back DeSantis

Several Republican voters, including former Trump supporters who came to hear DeSantis speak in Cedar Rapids, said they hope the Florida governor officially announces soon his intentions to run for president, and that he will likely have their support.

Dr. Robert Carlson, a retired surgeon from Muscatine who caucused for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, in 2016, said he does not think the party can win back the White House with Trump. He said he likes Trump’s policies but not the “drama” that follows him.

“I want the Republican Party to win,” Carlson said. “But the drama that goes along with Trump” and his myriad legal battles are problematic. “And I wish that weren’t the case,” he said, adding “it would be nice if DeSantis could win the nomination.”

Should DeSantis officially declare, Carlson said he would be “a slightly new breath of fresh air” for the party, calling DeSantis “bright” and energetic.

He said he believes DeSantis has a better shot of winning in the general election, noting the Florida governor won Miami-Dade County, a former Democratic stronghold, by 11 points in his 2022 landslide victory over Democrat Charlie Crist to win a second term.

Keith Neuzil, 60, of Oxford, caucused for Trump in 2016. He won’t do it again.

“I agree with the message, but I don’t like the messenger,” Neuzil said of Trump. “He can’t keep his mouth shut. Plain and simple. … I disagree with him attacking his opponents, giving them nicknames. That’s childish.”

In order for the party to win in 2024, Neuzil said it needs a more disciplined candidate. That, he said, could be DeSantis. But, until he declares, Neuzil said his support lies with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, for her executive leadership, foreign policy experience, political savvy and “female perspective.”


Laura Hemann, a radiologist in Cedar Rapids, voted for Trump after having supported Democratic former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

“I wouldn’t vote for Trump again, unless I really had to, because he makes it all about himself; not about the country,” Hemann said. “He’s embroiled in too many things, some of which — not all — are self-inflicted.”

Should DeSantis declare, Hemann said he would have her unequivocal support, calling him “a patriot with the right vision for the country.”

“I think DeSantis is all about common sense,” she said of his crusade in Florida against “wokeism” — the promotion of liberal progressive ideology and policy as an expression of sensitivity to systemic injustices and prejudices — and his advocacy for parental rights in education.

“I think a lot of what goes on in schools is pure propaganda right now,” Hemann said, adding hearing DeSantis in person and meeting his wife further solidified her support.

Iowa state Rep. Norlin Mommsen, a Republican from DeWitt, is among the more than three dozen Iowa state legislators who endorsed DeSantis ahead of his trip to Iowa on Saturday. That represents more than one-third of the Iowa Republican legislative caucus.

Mommsen said he’s never before endorsed in a primary, but broke with tradition, “because I think it’s that important that we take back the White House.”

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to win the vote, and I think the governor has the best chance of winning the general election,” he said. “As much as I like President Trump’s policies, there’s a group of people that would not support him, and I think that would be a hindrance to him winning the election.”

Mommsen said DeSantis “strikes the right tone” for what he and many Iowa voters are looking for in a “push back against some of this ‘woke’ culture stuff.”

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart, in a statement, criticized DeSantis for signing into law an “extreme abortion ban” prohibiting the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy, his past support for changes to entitlement programs including Social Security and Medicare, and “taking away the rights of LGBTQ Americans.”

Hart also called out Trump for continuing “to peddle dangerous lies about the 2020 election.”

“No matter who ends up being the GOP nominee, it’s clear MAGA Republicans support the most extreme candidates in our history,” Hart said. “I’m ready to protect our freedoms, strengthen our democracy and finish the job with President Joe Biden.”

Trump supporters say DeSantis should wait

At the canceled Trump rally in Des Moines, finding caucus candidate shoppers was difficult. These were not people coming to analyze a candidate and consider the pros and cons; these were Trump supporters, plain and simple.

And even the ones who like DeSantis said they prefer Trump and wish DeSantis would sit this one out.

Some of those who had come early for the Trump rally spoke to reporters before leaving the event grounds.

“I think (DeSantis) needs to take a step back, learn something from Trump, let Trump finish,” said James Gardner, from Council Bluffs.

Said Lisa Smith, from Springfield, Ill., “It’s not that I don’t like Gov. DeSantis. He’s a good governor and I think he needs to stay a governor and I don’t understand why he would run against somebody (like Trump) who’s done all of the stuff that he should have done, and he’s proven himself. Why not just put him back in? …

“It’s not that I don’t like DeSantis. I just don’t think that that’s the position he should be in at this time, and I really don’t want him to run against (Trump),” Smith said. “It would disappoint me if he does.”

There were also Trump supporters who were less fond of DeSantis. Like Jeff Richardson, of Waukesha, Wis., who called the Florida governor “DeSatan” and said he is “bought and paid for.” Jena Newell, of Des Moines, expressed similar concerns with DeSantis.

“I think he’s a great governor. I think he’s done a good job,” Newell said. “But I think he’s being funded by people that don’t have our best interests at heart. And I think he’s going to owe a lot of people and therefore his decisions are all going to be pulled one way or the other by people that have another agenda other than my agenda, which is let’s just get America back to good old America.”

Lee Yarrington, of Bridgewater, Iowa, listed policies on which campaign ads supporting Trump have criticized DeSantis, like Social Security and the retirement age.

“He’s not good. It’s not good, because he’s doing things not good for the American people,” Yarrington said.

And yet for their criticisms of DeSantis, each of the Trump supporters said they would vote in the 2024 election and vote for DeSantis if he is the Republican nominee.

But Trump is their candidate.

“I think he’s the only guy. I want him to finish what he started,” Gardner said. “I was all for $1.84 gas prices and grocery stores filling up my cart for under 100 bucks.”

The average price of a gallon of gas in Des Moines during most of Trump’s time as president was between $2.11 and $3.11 until a steep drop in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to historical data at

Smith said she is not considering any of the other Republican candidates.

“(Trump) is going to be the one,” she said, “because he’s proven himself to do the things that he said he’s going to do.”

Said Newell, who was among the 150 “elected and grassroots” Iowans who endorsed Trump, “He’s my guy. No one else can bring us back from the cliff. No one. That’s what I believe.


“And we’ve been very disappointed in how our own — I’m a registered Republican — our own party is not always supporting our conservative views and perspectives. And again, I just think Donald Trump is the only one who sincerely cares about the middle class of America. And no one has convinced me otherwise.”

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