WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Former President Donald Trump would be the overwhelming frontrunner for the Republican Party’s nomination should he wage a 2024 comeback bid. But that’s not stopping his would-be GOP successors from barreling into Iowa.
Only months after Trump’s election defeat, Republicans are laying the groundwork for the all-important, first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. Potential candidates are hopscotching across the state to fundraise, campaign for midterm hopefuls and appear at traditional party dinners that mark the start of caucus season.
And behind the scenes, Republicans are making overtures to influential activists, meeting with party leaders and hiring operatives with deep experience in Iowa, which is still expected to be the first 2024 contest for Republicans — even though Democrats are grappling with whether to change their nominating calendar.
The burst of early activity — which is set to accelerate over the summer months — illustrates how Republicans are maneuvering with an eye toward succeeding Trump. A Trump bid would likely extinguish their hopes of becoming the party’s nominee, and at least one candidate has said they won't run if if Trump does. But would-be contenders are wasting no time preparing for the possibility of an open nominating contest.
During an interview following an Iowa Republican Party dinner here last week, former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad ticked off a list of recent and upcoming visitors to the state, ranging from South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott to former Vice President Mike Pence to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“What I tell any candidate, of either party: Come early, come often, get to know the people of Iowa,” said Branstad, who served a record six terms as the state’s governor. “We’re going to have a whole lot of people” come.
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley became the latest potential candidate to make a pilgrimage to Iowa, embarking on a three-day trip last week that included speeches before the Story County Republican Party and the Iowa GOP’s Lincoln Dinner.
The first multi-candidate cattle-call is slated for next month, when Pence, Pompeo and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem are set to trek to Des Moines to address the Family Leadership Summit, a gathering that will draw evangelicals from across the state.
The early campaign schedule is being dominated by former Trump administration officials like Haley and Pompeo who, now lacking the platform that comes with holding public office, are using the trips to keep themselves in the spotlight. But sitting lawmakers are also beginning to make forays into Iowa: Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is holding an event in Sioux Center this week and is also planning an August visit to the state. Florida Sen. Rick Scott has been to Iowa twice this year and is expected to return sometime this summer in his capacity as chair of the Senate GOP campaign arm. Tim Scott, meanwhile, attended an April fundraiser in Davenport.
Yet more outreach is taking place in private. Jeff Kaufmann, Iowa’s influential Republican Party chair, has met with several prospective candidates, including Haley, and has been advising hopefuls on what parts of the state they should visit. Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent Iowa social conservative who is hosting the Family Leadership Summit, has spoken with Pence, a longtime friend.
Cotton is seeking out another route to build alliances. The senator has taken on the role of campaign recruiter and is talking with potential challengers for the lone Democratic congressional district in Iowa. Cotton has also been in regular contact with several members of Iowa’s congressional delegation, including Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who in 2020 won the election by a razor-thin, six-vote margin.
Coinciding with his trip to Iowa this week, Cotton is set to launch a program aimed at bolstering military veterans such as Miller-Meeks. As part of the effort, the Arkansas Republican is expected to campaign for the freshman congresswoman, raise money for her and fund attack ads against her eventual Democratic opponent.
Some are even tapping political strategists to help them navigate the state. Pence has been working with Chip Saltsman, the GOP operative who helped oversee former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 caucus win. Pompeo is being advised by former U.S. Ambassador Chuck Larson, a past Iowa legislator and state GOP chair. The list of other operatives who’ve received outreach from prospective presidential hopefuls includes Jimmy Centers, a former top Branstad aide.
For now, the most visible political activity is organized around the 2022 midterm elections, with potential hopefuls using down-ballot contests to earn chits and introduce themselves to future caucus-goers. Those on the ground say Haley has been among the most aggressive in bolstering candidates, sending out emails and text messages raising money for Gov. Kim Reynolds and the state’s congressional delegation. Haley also campaigned for several Iowa lawmakers during the 2020 election.
“There’s a lot of room for people to work, raise money, fire up the base, and help candidates who need help,” said David Kochel, a veteran Iowa-based GOP strategist. “I would imagine it’s going to [be] busy here for the next couple of years before there’s more clarity about what 2024 looks like.”
Some would-be candidates are already mixing in up-close-and-personal campaigning with the high-profile fundraisers and big party speeches. Pompeo has made a point of appearing at local gatherings and reaching out to grassroots organizations. This March, barely two months after leaving the State Department, Pompeo visited the Pottawattamie County Republican Party, met with the Urbandale-based Westside Conservative Club, and toured the headquarters of an agricultural equipment manufacturing company. The former Kansas congressman is planning to make similar local visits during an upcoming trip.
The strategy closely aligns with what’s become an article of faith: Iowans want to be courted.
“Iowans are very [discerning] voters, and they’re probably not going to make a decision until they’ve seen a candidate probably three or four times," said Branstad, who has recently appeared alongside Haley and Pompeo at events.
“You’ve got to make a good impression — not just a first impression, you’ve got to make a good impression several times and build momentum over time,” added Branstad, who said he doesn’t yet have a preferred candidate.
And despite the early date, potential contenders are already facing tests. The Family Leadership Summit, for instance, could become an initial barometer of evangelical support in a state filled with social conservatives. Much of the focus is likely to be on Noem, who this spring antagonized religious conservatives when she vetoed a bill that would have barred transgender girls from competing on girls’ sports teams out of concern it would get struck down in the courts. Noem later signed a pair of executive orders imposing the ban.
Kaufmann, meanwhile, has been publicly pressing would-be candidates on whether they support maintaining Iowa’s prized first-in-the-nation status. With Democrats openly weighing whether to alter their calendar following a chaotic 2020 caucus, some Iowa Republicans have expressed concerns they, too, will be dislodged. Although the odds of that happening appear remote — the Republican National Committee largely controls the nomination calendar and hasn’t made any indication it wants a change — that didn’t stop Kaufmann from asking Haley at the Lincoln Dinner whether she believed Iowa should remain first.
The former South Carolina governor responded she was “fine” with it — as long as her home state retained its status as the first southern state to cast its ballots. The remark drew laughter from the 500-person audience that had packed into West Des Moines' cavernous Ron Pearson Center.
At least one Republican, however, is purposely avoiding the state. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has drawn widespread national interest from conservatives, doesn't have any trips to Iowa planned out of concern that it will further stoke speculation he's prepping a 2024 bid. DeSantis allies say they're focused squarely on his 2022 reelection effort and view talk of a presidential campaign as an unwelcome distraction.
And of course, overshadowing the early maneuvering is Trump.
Should the former president mount a comeback, it's possible that many of the Iowa visitors won't end up pursuing presidential bids. Kaufmann, who noted that he had invited Trump to the state, said he had “zero doubt that these candidates will rally around him” if Trump runs.
Others, however, see the reception the prospective Trump successors are getting as a sign the party may be willing to move on from the former president.
“I think you’re seeing conservatives look kind of beyond President Trump, and not because they’re upset at all about what he did, I think they’re just looking at who else might be out there for 2024,” said Vander Plaats. “And so that’s what I think makes this environment very intriguing.”