Iowa may be the most important state on Donald J. Trump’s early 2024 political calendar, but he hasn’t made many friends there recently.
He attacked Iowa’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, and then his campaign informed one of the state’s politically influential evangelical leaders, Bob Vander Plaats, that the former president would skip a presidential caucus this week in Des Moines.
The back-to-back moves on Monday – which the campaign of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida labeled “a snub by Iowa conservatives” in an email on Tuesday – show just how far Mr Trump, the Republican front-runner, has gone. nomination, acts as if he is immune to traditional political pitfalls while he is also under indictment and his rivals seek to capitalize on the weariness of some voters with their antics.
“With Trump’s personality, I feel like he thinks he owns Iowa,” said Steve Boender, a board member of the Family Leader, the conservative Christian group organizing Friday’s event, which Mr. Trump is skipping. “And I’m not sure he does.”
“I think Trump’s negativity is hurting things a little bit,” added Mr. Boender, who remains unaligned for 2024.
It is not surprising that Mr Trump will skip the Head of Household meeting. He has generally avoided these “cattle call” events that feature all candidates, as advisers see such settings as bringing him down to the level of his distant opponents. In addition, Mr. Vander Plaats has made no secret of his desire to outdo Mr. Trump, including a trip to Tallahassee to have lunch with Mr. DeSantis at the governor’s mansion.
“I think there’s no doubt, most likely, I’m not going to endorse him,” Mr. Vander Plaats said of Mr. Trump. “So he believes if he shows up and I don’t support him, it will make him look weak.”
But as a result, he said, Mr. Trump missed out on speaking to an audience of about 2,000, and “a lot of those people still love him dearly.”
Over the weekend, The New York Times reported on the various ways Ms. Reynolds appeared cozy with Mr. DeSantis, to the growing frustration of Mr. Trump, who nominated his predecessor for the ambassadorship. He wants credit for her rise and career; she won re-election in a landslide last year. He erupted publicly on Monday.
“I opened up the Governorship for Kim Reynolds, and when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, held big rallies, and she won,” Mr. Trump wrote on Truth Social, referring to her 2018 race. “Now, she wants remain ‘NEUTRAL.’ I don’t invite her to events!”
Ms. Reynolds’ office declined to comment. Mr DeSantis quickly came to her defense on Twitter, saying she was a “strong leader who knows how to ignore the chirps and get it done.”
Mr. Trump’s remark prompted some backlash from Iowans who support Ms. Reynolds, including Cody Hoefert, who served as co-chairman of the Iowa Republican Party from 2014 to 2021.
“It was a continuation of a series of unforced errors by the previous president,” Mr. Hoefert said, also citing Mr. Trump’s comments against a six-week abortion ban.
Ms. Reynolds called the Iowa Legislature into a special session this week to pass a six-week ban after a previous effort was blocked by the state’s highest court. Mr Trump said such a strict ban – when many women don’t even know they are pregnant – was “too harsh”.
Mr Hoefert said his break with Mr Trump – during whose presidency he remained a loyal party officer – was not over other allegiances.
“This wasn’t, ‘I’m going to attack Trump because I support candidate X,'” he said. “It’s because I’m tired of the former president making it all about himself and attacking his friends and potential supporters and other Republicans who are doing great conservative things because of what seems like a personal vendetta.”
Republicans opposed to Mr Trump’s leadership of the party again predicted the attacks would play badly with voters.
“He’s shown his penchant for self-destructive behavior, and it’s one of those things that I think voters are noticing,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican operative from Iowa who has advised Ms. Reynolds. “Kim Reynolds is very popular in Iowa. She hasn’t attacked Trump. She won’t — she’s told everybody she’s going to their events, and the fact that he has such an ego, he thinks everybody has to support him. That will not happen in these early states.”
Brett Barker, the chairman of the Story County Republican Party in Iowa, saw it as an unnecessary battle. “I don’t think it’s helpful to pick fights with sitting governors who are really popular in their home states,” he said, before adding: “I don’t know how damaging it will be in the big picture.”
A person close to Mr. Trump, who was not authorized to speak publicly, acknowledged that his attack on Ms. Reynolds was not part of a scripted plan, but questioned whether it would actually erode his reputation, despite predictions of a political fallout. His team believes he has enough support among Iowans to oppose the views of elected officials.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, cited a “scheduling conflict” as his reason for missing the Family Leadership Summit, and noted that Mr. Trump will be back in Iowa next week.
“The president will be in Florida this weekend headlining the premier national youth voter conference with Turning Point Action conference while DeSantis is nowhere to be found,” Mr. Cheung said of an event expected to draw a more pro-Trump crowd.
The Head of the Family event – which is expected to feature Mr DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Vivek Ramaswamy, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas – is the second major one. conservative meeting in two months, which Mr. Trump is bypassing.
Mr. Vander Plaats said that “half the battle” in Iowa has come out, and that Mr. Trump has so far fallen short on that score.
“Iowa is tailor-made for him to get beat here,” he said. “And conversely, if he wins here, I’m not sure there’s any way to stop him from being the nominee.”