DES MOINES — After months of trying to ignore Donald Trump’s broadsides, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds hit back — rebuking the former president Monday as she threw her weight behind his 2024 rival Ron DeSantis.
She told a rally crowd here that the Trump administration had ceded its coronavirus response to Anthony S. Fauci, the White House medical adviser despised by many Republicans. She said voters should seek a president who “won’t get distracted,” who “puts this country first and not himself” and who thinks “it’s a beautiful thing to save a beating heart” — alluding to Trump’s criticism of six-week abortion bans.
The speech plunged the governor of the first-in-the-nation GOP caucus state further into conflict with the overwhelming polling leader for the party’s nomination, looking to boost a fellow governor she has grown close with and intervene against a Trump march to victory. Reynolds’s endorsement was highly unusual and politically risky, with Trump already lashing out and saying it will end her career.
“It would be very easy,” said DeSantis’s wife, Casey DeSantis, for Reynolds to just “sit this out.”
Reynolds is wading into the primary as DeSantis has just over two months left to shake up a race that Trump has dominated. DeSantis is fighting for a distant second place with former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and banking on a strong showing in Iowa on Jan. 15 to puncture the sense that Trump’s renomination is inevitable.
Haley’s support has now surpassed that of DeSantis in two other early nominating states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and she pulled even with DeSantis in a recent poll of Iowa caucus-goers — amping up the pressure for DeSantis to change his trajectory.
DeSantis supporters hope the endorsement will help turn things around. They argue that they can out-organize their rivals on caucus night. Reynolds said Monday she intends to hit the trail for DeSantis.
But it’s not clear how much it will move the needle. Some undecided Iowans at Monday’s rally suggested the endorsement was not a major factor for them. “I mean, I respect her opinion,” said Dan White from West Des Moines, who was still considering Trump and Haley along with DeSantis.
But Iowa Republicans also say that Reynolds is not to be underestimated — popular with activists and willing to tangle with members of her own party to advance her agenda. Last year she helped primary GOP lawmakers who stood in the way of a school choice bill she championed.
In a sit-down interview with DeSantis on Monday, Reynolds told NBC News that she thinks Trump can’t win the general election and that Trump’s insults didn’t drive her decision.
“I could tell it was a decision not undertaken lightly,” said Mike Schmidt, 42, from Urbandale, a voter who arrived at the Des Moines event already supportive of DeSantis.
Reynolds has grown deeply frustrated with the former president and also has built a strong rapport with the DeSantis family, according to people who know her.
Casey DeSantis, who is often on the trail, introduced Reynolds at Monday night’s rally.
“Few courageous, selfless leaders stick their necks out there and they fight for what is right even when it may not be politically convenient,” she said, in the night’s most candid acknowledgment of the risk Reynolds was taking.
DeSantis, in his remarks closing out the event, largely stuck to his normal talking points after praising Reynolds’s response to covid-19, a crisis they bonded over. In a corner, a band was set up in front of a backdrop with words that have become a sort of unofficial campaign slogan: “No excuses.”
He didn’t take direct aim at Trump. But in his NBC interview earlier with Reynolds, he said: “It’s almost like with Donald Trump, if you don’t kiss the ring — you can be the best governor ever and he’ll trash you. You can be a terrible, corrupt politician. But if you kiss his ring, then all of a sudden he’ll praise you.”
Reynolds will also join DeSantis for a Tuesday morning meet-and-greet in Davenport — the same city where she helped him kick off a book tour early this year, as DeSantis geared up to run. She also plans to travel to Miami for a Tuesday night dinner fundraiser with DeSantis ahead of the debate, according to multiple people invited.
Reynolds has joined many presidential hopefuls on the trail this year, but for months has appeared particularly warm with DeSantis. She introduced DeSantis as he launched his campaign in Clive, Iowa, and in September raised eyebrows by accompanying him to a rivalry football game attended by multiple candidates.