Iowa Republicans cheer Trump as most opponents tread carefully

By: and - July 31, 2023 8:55 am

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to guests at the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner on Friday in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Iowa Republicans emphasized they were open to hearing from all 13 presidential candidates Friday at the state party’s Lincoln Dinner, but many in the audience were ready to send former President Donald Trump back for a rematch.

“In Iowa, we are a neutral, objective state,” Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said. “We’re going to give everybody a fair chance.”

The rules were the same for all 13 of the Republican 2024 presidential candidates: 10 minutes and the microphone was cut off.  While all candidates had equal time, they did not meet an equally enthusiastic audience.

Trump, who spoke last, received an extended standing ovation as he walked onto the stage.
“I’m here to deliver a very simple message: Iowa has never had a better friend in the White House than President Donald J. Trump and I think we know that,” he said.

More than 1,000 gathered for the state Republican Party event at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines Friday to eat and hear from nearly the entire field of Republican presidential hopefuls aiming to secure the party nomination.

Most candidates who spoke chose not to name Trump — who still holds wide lead in Iowa with support from 46% of likely Republican caucusgoers, according to a recent Fox Business poll — during their speeches. Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd was booed when he brought up the multiple criminal indictments Trump faces.

“Donald Trump is not running to make America great again,” Hurd said. “Donald Trump is not running to represent the people that voted for him in 2016 and 2020.  He’s running to stay out of prison.”

“I know the truth, the truth is hard,” he responded, before ending his remarks.

Guests cheered when Trump made false claims that the 2020 election against President Joe Biden was “rigged,” promising that he would not allow the same to happen in the 2024 election. The former president ran through a list of his accomplishments as president from appointing U.S. Supreme Court justices that overturned Roe v. Wade to supporting ethanol and E-15 fuel.

Trump dismissed the legal cases against him, saying, “If I weren’t running, I would have nobody coming after me.” Trump said he was still the best choice to take on Biden in 2024.

“There’s only one candidate, and you know who that candidate is,” Trump said. “He’s going to get the job done.”

Trump has retained his lead despite declining to participate in other “cattle call” events in the state like U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” fundraiser or the Family Leadership Summit. The Iowa GOP event was the first time Trump appeared at with competitors like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Trump made some comments about DeSantis at the Des Moines event, saying the Florida governor does not support ethanol and would lose in a general election to Biden. The former president did not spend much time talking about his rivals in comparison to his speeches at rallies, saying getting through his presidency’s list of accomplishments is “hard to do that quickly” as he tried to stay within the 10-minute time slot.

Kaufmann emphasized that the Republicans need to keep their eyes on the target: Biden.

“When we are done with this process – and yes, there’s gonna be some elbows, yes, this is a full contact sport – But we were are going to unify and get rid of that fool in the White House,” Kaufmann said.

After the dinner and speeches, candidates held receptions in rooms at the event center, taking pictures and speaking directly with voters.

John Gehling was one of many guests who waited in line to take a picture and shake hands with Trump following the event. He said he was not entirely committed to Trump, but that the former president is still his top pick for now because of his track record as president.

“Stump speeches are one thing, but Trump has delivered,” Gehling said. “So that’s a known quantity, where the rest are campaign promises.”

Annette Hoover of Indianola said she was committed to supporting Trump in 2024, but that she did not dislike any of the other candidates running. She said she was “inspired” by candidates like U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and would want to see them tapped by Trump if elected.

“I just think, whoever is president, that there was a place for a lot of people in the administration,” Hoover said. “I think that’s what’s good about that kind of thing.”

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley

As the first speaker of the night, Haley told Iowans that she was committed to telling the truth. That means admitting Republicans played a role in the country’s current budget problems, she said.

“I would love to say Biden did that, but I’ve always spoken hard truths,” Haley said. “I’m gonna do that with you today. Our Republicans that that’s us too.”

Haley said spending measures like the the $2.2 trillion COVID stimulus bill, supported by Republicans, have contributed to the national debt and added people to welfare programs like Medicaid and food stamps. The former South Carolina also called for term limits and requirements for officials over age 75 to take mental competency tests.

Biden is 80 years old and Trump is 77. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 81, made news for suddenly going silent mid-sentence while talking with reporters.

“That’s not being disrespectful,” Haley said. “These are people who are making decisions on our national security. They’re making decisions on our economic policy.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the first candidate to launch a broadside against former President Donald Trump – and received only a smattering of applause.

“As it stands right now, you will be voting in Iowa while multiple criminal cases are pending against former President Trump,” Hutchinson said. “Iowa has an opportunity to say, ‘We as a party, we need a new direction for America and for the GOP.’”

Former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd

Before he made his risky remarks about Trump, Hurd drew some applause when he talked about doing another dangerous job: serving as an “undercover officer” in the CIA.

“My job was to stop terrorists from blowing up our homeland. My job was to stop nuclear weapons proliferators from bringing in a dirty bomb. My job was to stop the Russians and the Chinese from stealing our secrets,” he said. “I was shot. I was chased. And there was number of times when I thought I was going to meet my maker, and my mother was going to get a phone call no mother ever wants to get. It was an honor to put my life on the line to serve a country that has given me so much.”

Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to guests at the Republican Party of Iowa 2023 Lincoln Dinner on Friday in Des Moines, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis received a standing ovation from the Lincoln Dinner crowd for his speech that focused on Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris over his Republican rivals.

The Florida Republican joked about avoiding drama in the White House if elected on issues that have come up during Biden’s tenure.

“I can promise you this in my White House, there will be no cocaine allowed in the White House,” he said. “And look, my son’s only five years old so he’s not going to be lining his pockets with money from foreign governments that don’t worry about that.”

DeSantis also said he would “repeal Bidenomics” and return the “fundamental right” of parents to direct their children’s’ upbringing. The Florida governor brought up a recent visit from Vice President Kamala Harris, who was also in Des Moines Friday, to Florida because of “phony narratives” on Florida school curriculum.

Harris and others – including Republicans like U.S. Sen. Tim Scott – criticized new Florida Black history curriculum guidelines for including directions to instruct students about how enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

He said Harris was attacking Florida because the state has “stood up to the left’s agenda.”

“We have beat the left’s agenda in the state of Florida, and so she thinks she can come down and lie about we’re doing in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “I’m not budging an inch. We are going to fight back against these people, and we are not letting them take over our schools any longer.”

DeSantis did not bring up Trump by name, but said there’s no room for “excuses” in the 2024 general election.

“We either win this election and make good on all the promises that we’re making, or the Democrats are going to throw this country into a hole that’s going to take us a generation to come out,” DeSantis said. “I believe that decline is a choice. I believe success is attainable. And I know that freedom is worth fighting for. This is our chance in 2024.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina focused, as he often does, on offering his personal history as an example of how American values make it possible to climb from poverty. “But Joe Biden and the radical left, he is attacking the values that made us possible. He is tearing down every rung of the ladder that helped me climb,” he said.

Scott did not repeat the criticism he offered earlier this week about one aspect of Florida’s school curriculum that seems to suggest students will be taught that some enslaved people benefited by learning skills. “There’s no silver lining” to slavery, he said in Ankeny.

That put him at odds with DeSantis, who defended the curriculum and accused Democratic critics and the media of lying about it.

Perry Johnson

Businessman Perry Johnson told the crowd he has some positions that other Republicans would disagree with.

“I know that I’m probably going to get killed by (Chris) Christie and Pence, but I think it is ridiculous that we’re sending $113 billion over to the Ukraine when we’re going broke here,” Johnson said.

In addition to stopping foreign aid to Ukraine, Johnson called for freezing the budget and shutting down the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Vivek Ramaswamy

Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur from Ohio, framed the GOP primary as a choice between incremental reform and revolution.

“There are good people in this race who will tell you this is the time for reform. We need to work within the institutions we have. We should incrementally reform them for the better. But that’s a false promise” because of the entrenchment of the bureaucracy or “deep state,” he said. “… This is not a moment for reform. I don’t stand for reform. I stand for revolution.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum drew some groans and boos from the audience by taking a poke at Iowa sports teams. He said two of the greatest days of his and his wife’s life were in Iowa: “The first was when the North Dakota State Bisons beat the Cyclones and the second was when the North Dakota State Bisons beat the Hawkeyes. Yeah!”

At the audience reaction, he jokingly chided: “What, what, too soon? Too soon? Come on, that was 2014, 2016. Come on, let’s move on.”

Burgum gained some applause, however, for touting tax cuts and reductions in government spending in his state. “North Dakota is on track to have the highest GDP of any state in the nation,” he said. “… We know how to get the economy going.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence

Though former Vice President Mike Pence launched his 2024 presidential campaign with a condemnation of his 2016 running mate, he did not mention Trump in his Lincoln Dinner address.

Pence instead asked for Iowans to support his campaign because he would return dignity to the White House.

“I truly do believe the American people long to restore a threshold of civility in public life,” Pence said. “… I want to promise each and every one of you, if I have the privilege of being your President, we will restore honesty, integrity and civility to American public life.”

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told Iowans about his family’s history migrating from Cuba when his parents were “kicked out” of the country after Fidel Castro took power.

“He made everybody equally poor and equally miserable,” Suarez said. “And that is fundamentally the opposite of what this great nation is.”

Suarez, who entered the race in June, said he was worried about the “rising threat” of China, saying that China has a base on the island where the country is “potentially, maybe training the military” in Cuba.

“That is something that cannot happen, and will not happen if I become President of the United States,” Suarez said.

Ryan Binkley

Texas businessman Ryan Binkley also argued the need for new leadership, but he managed to avoid the ire of the crowd.

“I have to be able to appreciate the leadership that’s passed. But in my heart to you, I have to tell you, it is time and I believe it’s God’s will that we move forward as a nation. It’s so difficult to try and settle the scores and look in the rearview mirror when there’s a huge vision ahead,” he said.

Larry Elder

When Larry Elder was running for governor of California in the 2021 recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom, he said Biden called him the “closest thing to a Donald Trump clone as I’ve ever seen.”

He said he was flattered by the comparison. But Elder said he was running for president instead of simply supporting Trump because there are several issues the Republican party ignores. The former conservative talk show radio host said he would address the “epidemic of fatherlessness” as president, in addition to expanding school choice and combatting the “lies that America remains systemically racist.”

The idea that America is racist is the driving force for “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives and race-based preferences, “which is the very opposite of what MLK wanted,” Elder said.

“He wanted a colorblind society, not a color coordinated one,” he said.”

This article was originally published by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a part of the States Newsroom network.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.

Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.