Endorsing DeSantis is a risky move for Reynolds

by Iowa Capital Dispatch
November 6, 2023

I said on national television back in August that I would be very surprised if Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds endorsed a presidential candidate ahead of the 2024 caucuses.

Color me surprised. Reynolds is reportedly set to endorse Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a campaign event Monday evening in Des Moines and then take the show on the road, with stops in Davenport and Florida ahead of the third GOP presidential debate.

Reynolds first said over the summer she wouldn’t rule out a pre-caucus endorsement. The reasons I was skeptical then are the same ones that seem puzzling now: It’s a huge political risk for Reynolds and an even bigger hazard to the future of the Iowa GOP caucuses.

DeSantis was 29 percentage points behind former President Donald Trump in the Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll of likely GOP caucusgoers published a week ago. The Florida governor lost his lead over former U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who’s now tied with him at 16%. While Reynolds’ backing is certainly a boon at a crucial time for DeSantis, it seems like a stretch that it would push him over the top to defeat Trump in January and launch him to the nomination.

If Trump wins the nomination, the potential harm to the GOP caucuses’ first-in-the-nation status is obvious. If he remains the head of the national GOP, I can’t imagine he would hesitate to retaliate by pushing to reorder early states or eliminate caucuses altogether. The Republican Party of Iowa’s eight years of blind loyalty to him will count for nothing.

It puts the members Iowa’s congressional delegation in an awkward position as well. None of them has endorsed and all will now be under greater pressure to pick a candidate.

The backlash for Reynolds isn’t hypothetical – it started months ago when former President Donald Trump saw media reports about how cozy Reynolds was with DeSantis and his wife, Casey.  He groused on social media back in August about Reynolds saying she was remaining neutral “for now,” and insinuated she owed him her support because he somehow helped her get elected. (She didn’t need his help.)

The news that she was moving ahead with an endorsement for DeSantis prompted a Trump eruption on social media.  He called Reynolds “disloyal” and said it would be the end of her political career.

Typical hyperbole, but Trump may have a point, after a fashion. Reynolds isn’t as popular as she was before her 2022 reelection.  The Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showed her approval rating slipping a bit back in March as she pushed hard at a polarizing legislative agenda.

More recently, the Emerson College poll published Oct. 13 showed her approval rating underwater: 32% of Iowans approved of the job she’s doing while 39% disapproved and 29% were “neutral.” Among Republicans, 55% approved of Reynolds’ job performance while 19% disapproved.

There could be a lot of reasons for those numbers that have nothing to do with Trump or the caucuses. Reynolds, like DeSantis, has aggressively pushed for controversial public subsidies for private school students, anti-LGBTQ laws for schools and school sports, and a six-week abortion ban.

Governors’ job approval ratings rise and fall, and the 2026 election is a long time away, if Reynolds even decides to run. She may assume, not without reason, that Iowa Democrats are too disorganized to pose much of a challenge if she goes for a third term.

But her willingness to hazard backing a stalled-out caucus candidate, invoking the wrath of the clear frontrunner and a large share of her base at the potential cost of the caucuses, seems uncharacteristically reckless. It could be that Reynolds is either seriously overestimating her political capital or she doesn’t think she’ll be needing it much longer.

There are a lot of reasons Reynolds might not seek reelection that have nothing to do with the presidential race or fluctuations in her popularity. She could be anticipating that Sen. Chuck Grassley will retire sometime before he turns 100, leaving his seat open. It could be that her husband’s recently announced illness has shifted her priorities. (We join the many Iowans who wish the “first dude” well and pray for his speedy recovery.)

And there’s always the off-chance that her bold example will inspire Iowa Republicans and push DeSantis over the top in the caucuses and the 2024 election. She’s surprised me before.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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