Trump's attack on Iowa's popular governor hints at a vulnerability in the state

The neutrality of many GOP elected officials is a counterpoint to the narrative that the poll-leading former president is on a glide path to the 2024 nomination.

President Donald Trump with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds during a campaign rally on Jan. 30, 2020, in Des Moines.Tom Brenner / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump sent a Dante-like message to elected Republicans when he criticized Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday: There’s a special place in hell for those who remain neutral in times of crisis.

Political insiders say that's not hell; it's Iowa.

"I understand President Trump wants loyalty, and I respect that,” said Cris Christenson, a former treasurer of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition who has donated money to both Trump and Reynolds in past elections. “But I think it’s up to the Iowa voters to decide.”

The neutrality of many Republican elected officials in Iowa — and across the country — has rubbed Trump the wrong way at a time when he is the clear front-runner for a third consecutive GOP presidential nod. That's because it's one of the few evident counterpoints to the narrative that he's on a glide path to locking down the nomination.

Trump has a wide lead in national polling over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his leading challenger, and he often captures more than half of GOP voters in surveys. Polling in Iowa has been scant, but Trump has led even in surveys conducted by DeSantis allies.

Still, Trump hung a lantern on his own problem by ripping into Reynolds, the popular second-term governor, for failing to reciprocate his political support for her and showing up at DeSantis events.

The growing rift could further open an avenue of opportunity for DeSantis in a state where his performance in the Jan. 15 caucus is crucial to his viability.

"I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won," Trump wrote on the Truth Social media platform Monday, two days after The New York Times reported he was becoming frustrated with what he perceived to be Reynolds' embrace of DeSantis. "Now, she wants to remain 'NEUTRAL.' I don't even invite her to events!"

Last month, Trump said more explicitly that Reynolds — the state’s first female governor, who won 95 of Iowa's 99 counties last year — owes her position to him.

"I hate to say it, without me, you know, she was not going to win, you know that, right?" he said at a rally in the state.

Will Rogers, a former chairman of the Republican Party in Polk County, which is home to the state capital, Des Moines, said the endorsements DeSantis has collected from state legislators show that Trump hasn't been able to corner as much of the market on institutional backing in Iowa as he would have liked.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at an event with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in Davenport, Iowa, on March 10.Ron Johnson / AP file

"I think he's struggling with that," said Rogers, who hasn't endorsed a candidate and who has praised Reynolds and the state's representatives in Congress for staying out of the nomination fight to this point.

“Gov. Reynolds as well as the rest of our delegation not endorsing candidates in the presidential process is a sound policy that really makes sense not just for Iowa, not just for them, not just for the candidates, but for the country,” Rogers said.

Reynolds has appeared at events with a wide spectrum of candidates, including Trump, but she recently expanded her hospitality by joining with DeSantis’ wife, Casey DeSantis, for the launch of a group called Mamas for DeSantis. During his book tour this year, DeSantis compared Reynolds' success on the political and legislative battlefields in Iowa to his own in Florida — with her on the stage.

At the same time, Trump is skipping the annual summit of The Family Leader, an influential social conservative organization in the state, according to a tweet sent out Tuesday by Bob Vander Plaats, the group's president and CEO. DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and other prominent hopefuls are scheduled to attend.

DeSantis and other candidates rushed to defend Reynolds on Monday.

While Reynolds' openness to DeSantis may not suit Trump, half a dozen prominent Iowa Republicans said the neutrality of top officials helps protect Iowa's place as the first contest in the nation by giving candidates confidence that they can pitch themselves to voters on a fair playing field.

"I am a large county chair, and I want everyone to come to my county, and [that] allows voters to shake hands and ask questions," said Brett Barker, the mayor of the city of Nevada and the chair of the Story County GOP, who isn't backing any candidate. "That's what makes the caucus process great. I applaud Gov. Reynolds for remaining neutral."

Barker portrayed Trump's broadside as a distraction that won't affect Reynolds' standing with fellow Iowa Republicans.

"I do think there is fatigue about some of the sideshow things that are not the big-picture issues we should be focused on," Barker said. "What benefit is there to attacking a strong governor, and who does that benefit? I think people are just perplexed."

Most Iowa GOP insiders say Trump's outburst is unlikely to affect the caucus.

Steve Scheffler, an RNC committeeman from Iowa and the president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the dust-up was likely to blow over without having much impact on the caucus or Reynolds’ standing. Neutrality makes sense for Iowa leaders at this stage of the primary, said Scheffler, who isn't aligned with a candidate.

“I guess,” he said of Trump’s post, “we’d all prefer these conversations would be done internally.”

Alan Ostergren, a lawyer who is involved in Republican politics in the state, said Trump may have harmed himself by going after a governor who has a sterling reputation among conservatives.

"I think this issue could have some lasting consequences potentially," said Ostergren, who said he hasn't thrown his support to a candidate. "There is polling that shows Trump in the lead, but we have not yet had really quality polling with large sample sizes."

And, he added, "I don’t think Donald Trump’s support is nearly as strong as people say it is."

CORRECTION (July 12, 2023, 1:28 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the city where Brett Barker is mayor. It is Nevada, not Nevada City.