SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — Florida governors are used to dealing with storms. This time, Ron DeSantis used a tornado watch to his advantage.
The weekend in Iowa was slated to be a duel of sorts between DeSantis and Donald Trump, who is currently leading in the polls of Republicans and basking with his base in a media meltdown over his recent CNN town hall. DeSantis criss-crossed the state for the Feenstra Family Picnic in Sioux Center and a GOP state party fundraiser in Cedar Rapids, while Trump planned to host one of his traditional monster-truck size rallies in Des Moines.
But the weather had other plans: Just a few hours before his rally, Trump cancelled, citing a tornado watch in the area. DeSantis, in what was largely seen as a troll against Trump, made an unannounced stop to a BBQ joint down the road from where his rally was slated to be. He spoke to prospective voters outside with his wife, taking advantage of the evening’s mild weather.
“No idea why Trump pulled the plug, but even if that cancellation was valid, regardless it made Ron look strong,” a DeSantis ally wrote in a text.
It wasn’t just them saying it: DeSantis earned a rare rave review for his overall weekend performance from the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman — something Trump is bound to care about. The frontrunner spent his Mother’s Day lashing out on Truth Social at “Rob DeSanctimonious” and his plummeting polls.
Flipping burgers, smiling with voters, taking jabs at the frontrunner: This was the weekend the 2024 campaign started in earnest.
For DeSantis, the pressure was on to show he still had a pulse after a lengthy stretch in which he’s weathered non-stop attacks from Trump with little response while facing questions about his political skills from voters, donors, and elected officials. He’s expected to officially launch sometime around Memorial Day.
“We absolutely realize we’re second nationally — a fairly distant second,” one DeSantis ally said. “But we absolutely believe we have a gameplan, a candidate and an agenda to get there.”
It was a difficult position to start the weekend. Retail politics aren’t his bread and butter and every interaction was scrutinized by his critics and the press to see if it conformed to the hardening narrative of DeSantis as an awkward, unrelatable stiff. And sure enough, a picture and video of him laughing uproariously while meeting Iowans spread around Twitter, where it was mocked by his tormentors on the right and left.
He notably did not do a formal press gaggle in Sioux Center, despite a push from Congressman Randy Feenstra’s team to do so and a challenge from the Trump campaign to take questions outside conservative media.
But DeSantis showed some signs he might still be the politician who Republicans pegged since the start of the 2024 cycle as Trump’s strongest likely challenger.
He was welcomed at the Feenstra Family Picnic by a host of popular Iowa lawmakers, some of whom were included on a lengthy endorsement list that was released by Never Back Down just before his trip. The slate of 37 state legislators, and its well-timed rollout, served to even the playing field after Trump’s slew of Florida endorsements just a few weeks prior.
The attendance at the picnic was also seen by some as a sign DeSantis might end up with more institutional support than Trump in a state that could act as a presidential launching pad.
“If you notice, former President Trump is in Des Moines,” Jim Dean, owner of the Dean Classic Car Museum, where the Feenstra Family Picnic was held, pointed out. “Everybody — lieutenant governor, governor, secretary of ag, treasurer, attorney general — were all here.”
DeSantis has also been taking advice from Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative activist in the state who he met with ahead of his trip. While Vander Plaats is not endorsing yet, he told Semafor he was impressed with DeSantis’ achievements in Florida and that they discussed how they might transfer to the national stage.
“Frankly, I believe America is hungry for that type of leadership,” he said.
When it came time for his remarks, DeSantis stepped past the Florida-focused speech that much of the country saw during his book tour earlier this year. Ditching his suit for a more casual blue dress shirt (I’m told that the Florida governor has been open to style tips ahead of his run), DeSantis declared he’d “shut down the border immediately” if he was in charge and said “governing is not about entertaining” but “producing results.”
Perhaps the most notable section of his remarks warned what Democrats would do with another “sweep” in Washington after 2024: Expand the Supreme Court with liberal judges, make Washington, DC a state with permanently Democratic senators, maybe even end the electoral college.
“If we get distracted and focus the election on the past or on other side issues, then I think the Democrats are going to beat us again,” DeSantis said, flanked by two giant neon pegasi on the wall behind him. “And I think it’ll be very difficult to recover from that defeat.”
It was a not-so-subtle rebuke of Trump, who still is nursing grudges against allies who refused to join his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, and is promising to elevate those who stood by him, including the January 6th rioters he’s promised to pardon. He called into a far right rally on Saturday to promise an administration position to Michael Flynn, who he removed as National Security Adviser in 2017 after he was caught lying to the FBI and has since become deeply enmeshed in Qanon culture.
But it was also an attempt to make Republican voters, who have become understandably distrustful since 2016 of pundits telling them who can and can’t win, begin to think about electability. Biden is not seen as an especially scary or tough-to-beat opponent, which makes it easier to take a chance on Trump. Portraying 2024 as a couple of blown Senate seats away from a structural overhaul by the left was his attempt to flip that script.
Room for Disagreement
DeSantis isn’t the only one trying to showcase their support in the state. Trump rolled out his own list of 150 Iowa endorsements, which included mostly grassroots activists and county leaders along with some state legislators.
Iowa also doesn’t have the best record of picking Republican nominees lately. Trump lost the caucus in 2016 to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas who ran a campaign that was focused on winning over committed conservatives with an uncompromising platform.