When Kim Reynolds, the Republican governor of Iowa, stopped by a donation drive that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held last year, no one paid much attention.
When she sat earlier this year with Mr. DeSantis on stage, at another donor gathering down the road from Donald J. Trump’s residence, people began to take notice. When she brilliantly appeared with Mr. DeSantis not once, not twice, but a total of three of his first visits to her state this year, eyebrows arched. And when Mrs. Reynolds appeared on Thursday with Casey DeSantis, the governor’s wife, alarms went off at Trump headquarters.
Mrs. Reynolds said – including privately, to Mr. Trump – that she doesn’t plan to formally endorse a candidate in the presidential race, in keeping with a tradition that the Iowa governor stays on the sidelines, keeping the playing field level for the first GOP nominating contest. But by her words and deeds, Ms. Reynolds appears to be softening the ground in Iowa for Mr. DeSantis, appearing to try to create the conditions for an opening for him to bring in Mr. Trump.
For Mr. DeSantis, Iowa is where his allies acknowledge he must first halt Mr. Trump’s momentum to prevent him from steamrolling his way to a third consecutive GOP nomination. For Mr. Trump, it is where he hopes to shut out the candidacies of his challengers, and win where he did not in 2016.
And there is no politician in Iowa with a bigger swing than Ms. Reynolds, 63, who has overseen her party’s swelling state legislative majorities with approval among Republicans. close to 90 percent. Republicans say she can draw attention and shape the landscape even without making a formal endorsement.
Ms. Reynolds appeared alongside other candidates — including Mr. Trump, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott — but the warmth of her embrace of Mr. DeSantis became evident. It’s been the subject of internal Trump campaign discussions — it hasn’t escaped their notice that one of her senior political advisers, Ryan Koopmans, is also a top adviser to DeSantis’ super PAC — and even public outbursts from the former president.
“I hate to say it, without me, you know, she won’t win, you know that, right?” Mr. Trump said of Ms. Reynolds when he campaigned in Iowa in June.
The Republican crowd, in particular, did not applaud that off-the-cuff remark, which came just months after Ms. Reynolds romped to re-election, carrying 95 of the state’s 99 counties. But the claim spoke to the former president’s self-centered view of the world: that it was his appointment of her predecessor, Terry Branstad, as his ambassador to China that cleared the way for Mrs. Reynolds, then Mr. Branstad’s lieutenant governor, to. take the main job of the state.
Ms. Reynolds is said to have grown tired of Mr. Trump, and she reacted incredulously to his comment that she owed him her governorship, according to people familiar with her thinking and her response. However, she stood by Mr Trump after his most recent impeachment, attacking the Biden administration and saying it was “sad day for america.”
The two do have a history in common: Ms. Reynolds narrowly won a full term in 2018 with just 50.3 percent of the vote after Mr. Trump held a late-night rally for her, hailing her as “someone who has become a real star in the Republican Party. Party.” More recently, however, Mr. Trump has privately complained about Ms. Reynolds and other prominent Republicans, whom he feels owe him their endorsements because of their past support.
Ahead of Mr. Trump’s latest visit to Iowa on Friday, behind-the-scenes had been going on for days about whether Ms. Reynolds would join him. Ms. Reynolds said she would try to appear with whoever invited her, but an aide said she had not actually been invited. The Trump team sees her as having a standing invitation. Ultimately, she was not present.
The relationship with Mr. DeSantis, who privately courted Ms. Reynolds for many months, was strikingly different.
He calls her Kim.
She calls him Ron.
They joke with a degree of familiarity and friendliness that Mr. DeSantis rarely flashes with other politicians. People who know them say they forged a bond during the coronavirus pandemic, as two governors who pushed to open their states over the warnings of some public health officials. They sat down for a private dinner in March, during his first visit to Iowa this year, according to two people briefed on the meal, and in 2022 Mr. DeSantis called Ms. Reynolds to offer his encouragement ahead of her State of the Union response. . .
When Mr. DeSantis was asked by a local television interviewer during his first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate if he would consider Ms. Reynolds for a possible Cabinet position, he offered a surprisingly wide-ranging answerhinting at something even higher: “I mean I think Kim could be considered for almost anything a president would choose.”
Sometimes she had the appearance of a running mate.
Appearing with Mr. DeSantis on three of his four visits to Iowa this year, and now also with his wife, Ms. Reynolds praised Florida’s achievements under his leadership and linked her state’s successes to Iowa’s. The two lavish compliments on each other, and their talking points echo in perfect harmony.
He says that Florida is “the Iowa of the Southeast.” She says Iowa is “the Florida of the North.”
In her introduction at her inauguration, she made a point of specifically praising Mr. DeSantis for signing a six-week abortion ban that Mr. Trump has criticized.
“He proudly signed a law that makes it illegal to stop a baby’s heartbeat — the same heartbeat bill that I proudly signed,” she said of Mr. DeSantis.
Some Iowa Republicans said Ms. Reynolds was simply being a gracious host.
“She’s very popular but I don’t think she’s playing favorites,” said Steve Scheffler, one of the members of the state’s Republican National Committee and the president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “People are reading too much into this.”
But Trump advisers privately mocked her for being neutral in name only. “She’s a neutral quote,” said a person close to Mr. Trump, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the team’s thinking, which is that Ms. Reynolds will do whatever she can to help Mr. DeSantis. without supporting him.
The Washington bureau chief of Breitbart News, Matthew Boyle, who is known for his close relationship with the former president, conspicuously left Ms. Reynolds out of his. recent list out of 14 Republicans Mr. Trump could choose as his running mate in 2024.
Mr Trump has some well-placed allies in Iowa – the state party chairman’s son, who is in the legislature, is among his paid advisers – and he is looking for more. During his June visit to the state, he invited a small group of prominent Republican officials whose endorsements are still up for grabs to dinner at a downtown Des Moines steakhouse, including the state’s attorney general, according to people who attended the meal.
In an interview, Mr. Branstad, the former Iowa governor, described the Trump-Reynolds relationship as “Korean,” praised Ms. Reynolds as a popular and effective governor and said her formal neutrality was good for all Iowans. He urged the former president to overcome his anger.
“Trump has to get over it,” Mr. Branstad said. “He needs to get over the jealousy and resentment and focus on the future. You win elections by focusing on the future and not the past.”
There has been no recent independent polling in Iowa. In national polls, Mr. Trump led Mr. DeSantis by a wide margin.
Ms. Reynolds is not just the governor of Iowa: She also chairs the Republican Governors Association, the nationwide campaign for Republicans seeking governorships. Both her elected GOP counterparts leading the campaign arms of the Senate and House have already endorsed Mr. Trump.
Yet like other prominent Iowa elected officials, Ms. Reynolds explained it that her main goal is to ensure that Iowa maintains its “first in the nation” status. At a college football game last fall in Iowa, Ms. Reynolds was in a VIP box mingling with members of the state’s congressional delegation as they discussed the importance of staying “neutral” to protect Iowa’s enviable position at the top of the Republican voting calendar. , according to a person present for the conversation (Democrats took away the state’s previous seat in 2024).
“We’re not going to get involved in campaigns because we want everyone to feel welcome in Iowa,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, the 89-year-old Republican senior statesman, said in an interview. “And if the governor were to support someone, that might discourage other people from coming. Same for me.”
But there is some bubbling frustration with Mr. Trump within the delegation.
Last month, Mr. Trump skipped the signature “Roast and Ride” event organized by Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa. His campaign expressed interest in sending videotaped remarks, and Ms. Ernst’s operation then rented big screens to show them, but he never sent a video — leaving Ms. Ernst’s team without a recording, and the cost of the equipment for to cover , according to five people briefed on the incident.
Ms. Ernst’s team planned to use the opportunity to win a motorcycle helmet signed by all the Republican candidates as bait to sell tickets to the “Roast and Ride.” They sent the helmet to Mr. Trump, who returned it later than expected and added the numbers “45” and “47,” signaling that he will be the 47th president, the role for which everyone else is also running, according to two people with knowledge of the episode. They never used the helmet.
In March of this year, Ms. Reynolds did introduce Mr. Trump at an event. In a private meeting during that same trip, Ms. Reynolds emphasized to Mr. Trump that her focus was on keeping Iowa’s place as the No. 1 state in the nation on the campaign calendar, according to a person familiar with what happened but who was not . authorized to discuss it publicly. Mr. Trump responded by telling her that he was the one who protected the leadership position of the parties, as president. (The Iowa caucuses began the nomination process beginning in the 1970s.)
At their joint event on Thursday, Ms. Reynolds and Ms. DeSantis bantered on stage and even exchanged high fives.
“I’m a woman on a mission,” Mrs. Reynolds once said, “and I think you’re a woman on a mission, too.”
Lisa Lerer contributed reporting.