SIOUX CITY, Iowa –– Ron DeSantis lags in early national polling, he’s under constant attack by Donald Trump and donors keep getting cold feet over a potential 2024 run by the Florida governor.
Yet on the ground, there is an encouraging metric for DeSantis after he toured the country the past several months: the size of his crowds.
And that could serve as evidence of rank-and-file enthusiasm for his candidacy as he prepares to soon launch a presidential campaign.
In Republican Party events DeSantis has headlined across the nation — including two this weekend in Iowa — he has sold out venues, broken local fundraising records or forced organizers to move into larger spaces.
High attendance is expected at a pair of events in Iowa this weekend for DeSantis. Already, a Saturday GOP state party fundraiser in Cedar Rapids has sold out — only the second time in five years that such a regional event has done so, Iowa GOP party chair Jeff Kaufmann said.
A Saturday fundraising picnic in Sioux Center, hosted by Rep. Randy Feenstra, has the highest number of RSVPs it's had since it started three years ago, according to a spokesperson. In Illinois, a Friday Lincoln Day Dinner benefiting the counties of Tazewell and Peoria sold out, with 1,150 guests confirmed and a record number of tickets purchased.
“There is a lot of interest in a viable alternative to Mr. Trump — a lot of interest,” said Jeff Boeyink, a DeSantis supporter in Iowa.
Since March, DeSantis has traveled to eight states for 10 GOP events where he’s raised more than $4.3 million that all went to state and local Republican parties, according to his political arm. In that time, he went before about 10,000 people, from Dallas to Houston to Anaheim, California, to Midland, Michigan, and Birmingham, Alabama. (Those numbers do not include separate travel funded by the nonprofit group And to the Republic, where DeSantis has talked about his book and his “Florida Blueprint.”)
In Rothschild, Wisconsin, last weekend — a central Badger State location where Trump has long dominated — a DeSantis-headlined Lincoln Day Dinner broke an attendance record, drawing about 200 more people than a previous record, forcing it to be moved to a convention center, according to the Marathon County GOP chair. DeSantis also broke a fundraising record at the New Hampshire state GOP's annual Amos Tuck dinner, bringing in a quarter of a million dollars.
The crowds are nothing like the throngs of Trump loyalists who stream into the former president’s marquee rallies, and given that DeSantis is not yet a candidate, attendance does not necessarily equal support for his candidacy. However, DeSantis is on the verge of launching his campaign and is expected to file paperwork in the next 15 days.
DeSantis has grown into a national political figure after repeatedly making national news, including for his ongoing battle with Disney, for keeping Florida businesses and schools open through much of the pandemic and, more recently, for signing a six-week abortion ban.
Anecdotally, local leaders say DeSantis is second only to Trump when it comes to enthusiasm on the ground.
“It was the largest fundraising event we ever had,” Alabama GOP state party chair John Wahl said of the party’s March winter dinner that had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate nearly 1,700 guests.
Asked if other GOP candidates or potential candidates attracted similar audiences, Wahl said, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen any political speakers or candidates drawing this size crowd except for Donald Trump.”
Whether the interest is in DeSantis as a candidate or as a national figure is difficult to discern, given that he isn’t an announced candidate, said Wahl.
“But I will say this: His policies and what he’s doing in the state of Florida is incredibly, incredibly popular in the state of Alabama,” Wahl said.
The expected turnout at the Cedar Rapids event signals something to Kaufmann, who will moderate a question and answer session with DeSantis at the fundraiser.
“This regional [event] is showing me that there’s definitely a hunger to know more. And I have a feeling this hunger to know more is not necessarily just more about policy but more about Ron DeSantis — as opposed to Gov. DeSantis,” Kaufmann said.
Kaufmann said GOP caucus-goers usually vet candidates in three stages: name recognition, proving conservative credentials and policy stances, then finally, the actual sizing up of the candidate. He said because of DeSantis' national recognition, he's already crossed the first two hurdles that candidates like Nikki Haley and Tim Scott may still be working to get beyond.
"I think people want to know him as a person,” Kaufmann said. “Some of the other candidates that are just introducing themselves here in Iowa, deep down inside, I think probably know that the odds are against them winning Iowa. But I guarantee you, they’re looking at one of those tickets.”