Iowa governor Kim Reynolds endorsed Florida governor Ron DeSantis yesterday. While endorsements don’t typically matter, this one could be the exception — both because of what it says about the Republican Party, and what it says about Donald Trump.
When DeSantis decided to take the plunge into the presidential race, Team Trump has tried to depict him primarily as one of two things. First, they framed him as a fraud — a faux conservative establishment type, a Jeb Bush acolyte beloved by the donor class, a secret neocon with zero charisma. But this wishcasting line of attack largely failed, because only diehard, too-online Trump supporters or people with the memory of a goldfish could really buy this line given DeSantis’s sterling résumé in Florida and his record of battles with Democrats. In fact, most Trump supporters still have DeSantis as their second choice, and most DeSantis supporters have Trump as theirs.
So instead, Team Trump shifted to emphasizing a different message: winnability. They openly compared DeSantis to Scott Walker — a candidate who looked great on paper but failed on the national stage — a frame echoed by the national media. Sure, conservatives, you may have liked his Covid policies, but in reality DeSantis is another too severe Paul Ryan, too fiscally conservative to win; and those battles with Disney, the “don’t say gay” bill, the six-week abortion ban — the media will use all those things to make him toxic. He may be fine for Florida but he’s a national loser. This appeals to Republican voters who want desperately to take back the White House, and has cemented with them the idea that they’re allowed to like DeSantis, they just won’t win with him.
(Note: this is the line of attack from the campaign, which shouldn’t be confused with the candidate, who as per usual deploys all methods of attack at all times, zigging and zagging from one line to another. And of course be sure to stress that he’s short, and lying about it with his cowboy boots.)
After initially pledging neutrality, the Reynolds endorsement is one more sign that while the Trump messaging has worked to drive DeSantis’s numbers down, they still haven’t knocked him out. And what line is Reynolds using in her announcement interview with NBC and the Des Moines Register? It’s all about winning.
“I cannot believe how it has declined over just the short time under President Biden. And we’re resilient. We’ll be able to come back from this. But if we don’t win this next election, we’re done,” Reynolds told the Register. “I believe he’s the candidate that can win. And we also not only need somebody that can win, but we need somebody that has the skill and the resolve, which he clearly does, to reverse the madness that we see happening across this country.”
And as for Trump? “I don’t think he can win,” Reynolds said. “He’s not the same person.”
In 2016, Iowa rejected Trump in dramatic fashion, and the timing of the Reynolds endorsement — she has an approval rating among Republican voters there above 80 percent — seems bent on giving DeSantis his best shot to do it again. It also is one more sign that the repeated effort by Trump supporting Republicans to drive DeSantis out of the race (and, to a lesser degree, Haley) before the voting starts hasn’t worked.
The campaign communications shop has been all in on this idea. For months, Trump’s team sent out one email blast after another with the subject line “KISS OF DEATH,” a countdown toward an October date they chose as a cutoff point for DeSantis’s challenger campaign. If you aren’t fortunate enough to receive them, the typical flavor of these missives can be found in an October 19 edition, which declared “KISS OF DEATH COUNTDOWN: 5 Days Left” and mocked the governor for the announcement of a small local park in Manatee County, which local citizens had voted to name after him.
“What’s unclear about Ron’s new ‘teeny’-sized park — whether or not he’s tall enough to go on any of the rides!” wrote Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung, before claiming the day as a “tipping point” for the campaign and mocking “DeSanctus rapid response director Christina Pooshaw,” “Nikki ‘Birdbrain’ Haley,” and adding “someone should check for a pulse on the DeSanctimonious campaign.”
It’s amazing the degree to which this D-list insult comedy, which can stumble into entertaining moments on stage, just doesn’t play in email form. I recommend the best path to finding humor in them is by reading them in the voice of McBain from his classic movie, Let’s Get Silly.
In response to the Reynolds endorsement, Team Trump deployed their pollster, Tony Fabrizio, to dump on the ramifications of Reynolds’s choice and to offer a prebuttal should influential social conservative Bob Vander Plaats join her:
A Monday memo from Tony Fabrizio — the pollster for Make America Great Again Inc., a super PAC backing Donald Trump — told donors and supporters of the former president that Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, “has no significant impact on (the) Iowa caucuses.”
Fabrizio wrote that polling he conducted in September indicated an endorsement from Vander Plaats, which has yet to materialize, would have “negligible” impact, and his image was “mixed” among caucusgoers who were aware of him.
The memo was distributed the same day Reynolds appeared at a rally to endorse DeSantis, a major coup as his campaign seeks momentum against Trump in Iowa.
“While the DeSantis camp will try and spin that a Vander Plaats endorsement will revive their sputtering and shrinking campaign, cold hard data tells a much different story,” Fabrizio wrote.
(For the record, candidates endorsed by Vander Plaats won Iowa in 2008, 2012 and 2016.)
None of this indicates that Donald Trump isn’t still the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination — he obviously is. But the focus on the importance of winning above all else from the DeSantis-Reynolds announcement represents the most important attack they can level against the former president to Republican primary voters. Those New York Times/Siena poll numbers that had Democrats worried all depend on Trump avoiding conviction — and if that doesn’t happen, even if it’s unfair, even if you believe he’s a victim of the system, the numbers change dramatically. Whatever type of Republican primary voter you are, the ones DeSantis needs to pull away from Trump are the ones who don’t want to nominate a loser just because they love him.