Why Iowa matters if Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to top former President Donald Trump

'This time around, I believe Iowa is most crucial,' Bob Vander Plaats says
Posted at 6:27 PM, May 22, 2023

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With Florida's governor expected to file for a presidential run any day now, his strategy for victory in the GOP nomination is becoming clear: Iowa. Landing a blow against former President Donald Trump there is crucial, according to experts who think the Iowa caucuses will make or break challengers this cycle.

Iowa's king of social conservative politics, Bob Vander Plaats, said recently that Gov. Ron DeSantis is wise to focus on Iowa.

"This time around, I believe Iowa is most crucial," said Vander Plaats, CEO of the Iowa-based Family Leader, a politically and socially active Conservative Christian organization.

The caucuses are historically the nation's first litmus test of a presidential candidate's strength. Vander Plaats said a win in the Hawkeye state might be DeSantis' best chance of showing Republicans an alternative to Trump. The governor could then take that momentum to the next primary stop in New Hampshire.

"If you stop Trump here, or if you come in a very close second to Trump here, it could be game on to a nomination," said Vander Plaats, who has yet to endorse a candidate. "If Trump dominates Iowa and moves on to New Hampshire, I think he's going to run the table, and no one's going to touch him."

'Never Back Down DeSantis '24' sign in Iowa
A sign in Iowa touts Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president in 2024.

DeSantis hasn't taken off the gloves completely in recent Iowa stump speeches. While speaking in Sioux Center and Cedar Rapids earlier this month, he hit the former president without saying his name.

"There's no substitute for victory," DeSantis said on May 13 in northwest Iowa. "We must reject the culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years. The time for excuses is over."

Ken Cuccinelli, founder of DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, said the governor's selling point is electability. That's after DeSantis grabbed a near 20-point reelection victory during the 2022 midterms — a historically large margin in a swing state like Florida.

"He will get more done, as you've seen in Florida," said Cuccinelli. "I mean, there is no governor in America getting as much good, solid, conservative policy accomplished and executed."

But what do Iowans think about those conservative accomplishments?

Estherville resident Jan Lange took particular issue with Florida's migrant relocation program, which moved about 50 migrants last year from Texas to Martha's Vineyard.

"No, I'm not voting for him," said Lange. "Is that the Christian thing to do? I preached today. You're to love everybody, including your neighbor."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Donald Trump, July 31, 2020 at Pelican Golf Club
President Donald Trump speaks with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a roundtable discussion on the coronavirus outbreak and storm preparedness, July 31, 2020, at Pelican Golf Club in Belleair, Fla.

While the governor does have his supporters in Iowa, others remained on the fence. Judy Good was among them.

"As a Republican, I'm not sure what he's doing," said Good. "I'm not sure about Trump either. I really hope somewhere in this world there is a good Republican candidate."

The field of Republicans is growing each day as DeSantis remains No. 2 in caucus polling Trump is still No. 1, however, with a double-digit lead. There's plenty of time for change as the Iowa caucuses are months away, and DeSantis' official 2024 launch will likely boost his numbers — a launch that could happen any day now.

Former President Trump, meanwhile, welcomed a new challenger into the race for the GOP presidential nomination Monday afternoon. Trump posted this about South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott while also dissing DeSantis.