Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are heading to Iowa on Saturday for dueling events that underscore the escalating rivalry between the two leading contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
DeSantis has been slated for weeks to headline Rep. Randy Feenstra’s (R-Iowa) annual Family Picnic in Sioux Center, Iowa, and speak at a state GOP fundraiser in Cedar Rapids, while Trump’s campaign announced just last week that he would hold a rally in Des Moines.
The competing engagements are expected to shine a light on the increasingly contentious and bitter matchup between DeSantis and Trump, who has sought to freeze the Florida governor out of the 2024 race before he even officially announces a campaign.
A person familiar with Trump’s plans said that the Iowa rally had been planned for weeks before it was officially rolled out. Still, the optics of the event, taking place on the same day as DeSantis’s Iowa swing, underscore how eager Trump is to counter DeSantis in a critical early-voting state.
“It absolutely looks intentional,” one Republican strategist who’s worked on presidential campaigns said. “It’s par for the course for Trump. He sees something happening somewhere and immediately thinks he needs to counterprogram it.”
DeSantis hasn’t formally jumped into the 2024 race yet but is expected to launch a campaign in the coming weeks.
Never Back Down, the main super PAC backing DeSantis’s presidential ambitions, has already begun to lay the groundwork for an Iowa operation, hiring half a dozen staffers in the state to begin rallying support for him ahead of a formal campaign launch. The group noted that DeSantis’s scheduled appearance at Feenstra’s picnic had already broken records for RSVPs.
Never Back Down has also begun to run ads in Iowa and other early-voting states, like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and has begun to hire staff in 14 other states in preparation for Super Tuesday.
“The Never Back Down grassroots movement is seeing huge support swelling on the ground in Iowa for DeSantis, from the endorsements of influential state GOP leaders to a record number of RSVPs for Rep. Feenstra’s Family Picnic headlined by the Governor,” Erin Perrine, the communications director for Never Back Down, said in a statement.
“Iowans are impressed with Governor DeSantis’ record of unapologetic success in Florida and want to see that in the White House. Should DeSantis decide to run for President, it’s clear Iowans will be behind him.”
Early polling out of Iowa is scarce, though most surveys show Trump with a comfortable lead over DeSantis. Yet a poll from Public Opinion Strategies conducted in March pegged DeSantis’s favorability rating above that of Trump.
And when DeSantis touches down in the Hawkeye State on Saturday, he will already have something to brag about.
State Senate President Amy Sinclair and House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl endorsed the Florida governor’s presidential ambitions on Thursday, lending him the support of two well-known — and deeply conservative — Iowa Republicans and highlighting a desire among at least some GOP officials to move on from Trump in 2024.
“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,” Windschitl told the Des Moines Register this week. “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.”
But Trump has his own high-profile backers in Iowa, including his former acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker and former Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), as well as nearly a dozen other state Republican lawmakers.
The former president is heading into 2024 with a much more professional and organized caucus infrastructure, intent on heading off a repeat of 2016. Leading the effort as his state director is Marshall Moreau, who managed Brenna Bird’s successful campaign last year to oust now-former state Attorney General Tom Miller.
The Saturday stops in Iowa will test both Trump and DeSantis. The former president notably finished second to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, and a lackluster finish in 2024 would almost certainly be seen as a blow to his standing in the GOP.
At the same time, Trump and DeSantis will have to step outside of their respective comfort zones to focus on the kind of face-to-face retail politicking typical of presidential campaigns in Iowa, Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist said.
“Iowa’s more about retail politics,” Naughton said. “Trump is a rally guy. He’s the guy that’s going to do all the talking. I think DeSantis has had a little more experience on that front, but he has had a hard time connecting with voters on a personal level, so I think it’s a test for both of them.”