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Republican former President Donald Trump’s launch of a third White House run received a muted response Wednesday from Iowa Republicans, including from those he backed in last week’s elections.
The former president received a warm welcome earlier this month in Sioux City, where he held a rally and campaigned on behalf of Iowa Republicans. Trump shared a stage with U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds, whose campaigns, among others, he endorsed.
Asked if Grassley would return the favor and endorse a renewed Trump candidacy, a Grassley spokesman said the senator, who comfortably defeated Democrat Mike Franken and won re-election to an eighth term, encouraged “all candidates to come to Iowa and make their pitch directly to voters.”
Grassley’s office did not respond when pressed in a follow-up email asking whether the Republican incumbent supports Trump’s candidacy.
"As we look to the next election, Iowa will continue to host the first-in-the-nation caucuses on the Republican side, and we encourage all candidates to come to Iowa and make their pitch directly to voters,“ a Grassley spokesman said in a statement. ”Sen. Grassley’s primary focus continues to be getting our economy back on track and working hard for the people of Iowa.”
Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, who won re-election and whom Trump also endorsed, echoed the Grassley statement.
“Iowans certainly don’t want President Biden to be in office for another term,” Hinson said in a statement. “Here's what I'll tell every Republican 2024 presidential contender: 'See you in Iowa!'"
Reynolds’ office and campaign did not respond to messages by Wednesday evening seeking comment on Trump’s bid.
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who Trump named as U.S. ambassador to China in 2017 and was a strong supporter of Trump's campaigns in 2016 and 2020, said Wednesday he has not yet decided which candidate he will support in the Republican presidential primary, even after Trump’s entry into the race.
“I’m not going to make a decision this early. I never have,” Branstad told reporters at a gathering of a suburban Des Moines conservative group, according to audio from Radio Iowa.
Branstad said that if Trump does run, he should focus on what he would do in another term, not on what has transpired in his political past — including the 2020 election.
“Never run on what you’ve done. People have already made up their mind as to whether they like or dislike what you’ve done. But they want to know, if you’re elected again, what will you do,” he said.
Branstad’s son, Eric, worked for the Trump campaign in Iowa in 2016 and 2020, and attended Trump’s announcement event Tuesday night.
Eric Branstad says every time he speaks to Trump, the former president starts by asking how Iowa farmers are doing and what they need.
“He loves Iowa,” Eric said in a text message. “The forward-looking energy I felt (at the announcement event) was unreal.”
A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll from October suggests 52 percent of Iowans say their feelings toward Trump are very or mostly unfavorable — up from 45 percent from fall 2021. Trump’s favorability in Iowa, though, still outpaces that of Biden, and he remains popular with among a broad swath of GOP voters.
Trump earned favorable ratings from 83 percent of Republicans in the October poll, down from 91 percent in September 2021.
A polling memo from the conservative Club for Growth — which is focused on limited government, cutting taxes and conservative policies — suggests likely GOP contender and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leads Trump by 11 points in Iowa and by 15 points in New Hampshire.
David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist who worked on both Mitt Romney's and Jeb Bush’s presidential campaigns, says while Trump will receive a warm reception in Iowa — a state he won by 8 percentage points in 2020 — Republican voters are eager to hear from other potential candidates.
Other potential 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls include former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — all of whom have been frequent visitors to Iowa.
Trump faces a growing chorus of those within his party who blame him for an underwhelming midterm showing for Republicans due to his refusal to accept defeat in 2020 and inserting himself into key races Republicans lost by endorsing candidates who support his persistent and baseless claims of widespread election fraud.
“The evidence is out there that if you’re looking to the past — the 2020 election — and you’re running on a ‘stop the steal’ message, you fare much worse than candidates who are looking toward the future and are not bound by the most prominent Trump talking point, which is the election is rigged,” Kochel said. “There are going to be people who don’t want to talk about the 2020 election, who want to look to the future. To the extent that Trump stays mired in the past and DeSantis talks about the future, I think that message will be pretty compelling.”
But while a red wave failed to materialize nationally, Iowa Republicans mostly ran the table up and down the ballot. Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Christian conservative group The Family Leader, credits Gov. Kim Reynolds — not Trump.
“Iowans rewarded great leadership, just like in Florida,” he said.
Vander Plaats, who endorsed Republican Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 election cycle, tweeted last week ahead of Trump’s expected announcement that it was time for the Republican Party “to turn the page” and that “America must move on” from Trump.
Speaking Wednesday with The Gazette, Vander Plaats said Trump gave “uncharacteristically disciplined remarks” and clarity of what’s at stake in 2024, but worries that the former president could take the party in the wrong direction.
"The key questions is, is America willing to give him another shot at being president, and will there be other choices“ within the Republican Party? he asked. ”It could be a robust field, and I think Iowans are going to have a major role in discerning who we believe has the best shot of winning in 2024.“
Whether that’s Trump remains to be seen, Vander Plaats said. However, should Trump win the Iowa caucuses, Vander Plaats believes Trump “runs the table to the nomination” — but that a Trump victory in the state is not a foregone conclusion.
Republican Party of Iowa chair Jeff Kaufmann said he sees Trump as “the front-runner” in Iowa. “Having said that, I also think that Iowans are going to listen to everyone that decided to put their name into the hat,” Kaufmann said, adding he and the Iowa GOP will remain “neutral” in the Iowa caucuses.
“I think we’re going to have a wide variety of opinions on Trump,” he said. “I think it’s going to be hard … to actually tell if people are listening to others in the race because they’re looking for an alternative, or because they’re fulfilling their responsibilities of being in a first-in-the-nation state.”
Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Ross Wilburn, in a statement, called Trump a “defeated former President who botched a pandemic response, continues to attack our democracy, and routinely makes bigoted statements” and “isn’t fit to run for any office in our country.”
The Democratic National Committee said Tuesday it will soon begin hiring media relations staff Iowa and other Republican early nominating states, as well as in Florida.
“Republicans lost because of their extreme MAGA agenda and we are already laying the groundwork to continue to hold them accountable for that agenda over the next two years,” DNC spokesperson Kristen Orthman said in a statement. The DNC has never sent media staff to states this early, the committee said.
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Erin Murphy of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.