Trump looms large as Republicans scope out 2024 presidential prospects in Iowa midterm campaigns

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton spent his Wednesday afternoon at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Bacon Bacon in West Des Moines. He didn’t come for the food: The Arkansas conservative came to help Iowa Sen. Zach Nunn launch his campaign’s veteran coalition, offering his support in the race against incumbent U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne.

It’s not the senator’s first visit to Iowa this year. It’s his eighth since 2019. And while Cotton said his visits to Iowa are to help elect Republicans in November, Iowa Republicans are well aware of why political figures flock to their state.

“So we have Senator Cotton, Tom and his, wife, Anna, come out and join us because there’s a lot of people here in Iowa who like your leadership,” Nunn said. “And oh, I like to think that people come here and support Kelly and me, but it just so happens that Iowa’s 3rd (District) happens to be on the pathway to a certain house somewhere down the road.”

Less than two years out from the next Iowa caucuses, Republican politicians are coming to campaign in support of GOP candidates as they feel out a potential presidential candidacy.

But it’s still early for candidates to officially throw their hat into the ring. Cotton said he was in Iowa because it holds important races for Republicans’ goal to win back the House and Senate, like electing Nunn and re-electing U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.

“This is a very critical election,” Cotton told reporters. “So I’m gonna keep my eyes on the election ahead of us and we’ll decide about future elections in the future.”

Republicans take first steps in Iowa

Cotton isn’t the only one making up his mind on running. Last week, Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made her way around Iowa, joining Republican U.S. House candidates on the campaign trail and speaking at a private fundraiser for Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Haley, a former governor of South Carolina, has not officially entered the presidential race, but told reporters at an event supporting U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra that she plans to defend America in whatever role she can.

“If it looks like there’s a place for me next year, I’ve never lost a race,” Haley said, according to the Des Moines Register. “I’m not going to start now. I’ll put 1,000% in and I’ll finish it. If there’s not a place for me, I will fight for this country until my last breath.”

Some Republicans who ran for the 2016 presidential nomination are also making their way back to Iowa. U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have both made stops in the state after former President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020. Cruz, who won the 2016 Iowa caucuses, came in August 2021 to support U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson’s campaign, and promised America’s “revival is coming.”

Rubio also visited in August 2021. He said he is focused on his own re-election in Florida for 2022, but spoke about maintaining friendships in Iowa.

Trump looms large

But the 2024 Republican caucuses may not be a free-for-all like the Democratic caucuses were in 2020. Trump lost to President Joe Biden in 2020, but still holds major sway over both the Republican party and GOP voters.

Trump brought in a huge crowd at his Des Moines rally in October 2021, where he endorsed Grassley and reiterated his claims that he won the 2020 election.

But the former president has not officially said whether he plans to run again. A Democratic super PAC filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission in March, alleging he violated campaign finance laws by spending his PAC money on events without declaring his intent to run again as a presidential candidate.

“I mean, I know what I’m going to do, but we’re not supposed to be talking about it yet from the standpoint of campaign finance laws,” Trump told reporters in September, when asked about the next presidential campaign cycle.

Trump has a 53% approval rating in Iowa, according to an October 2021 Des Moines Register/Iowa Poll. But some Republicans say there’s enough room for other candidates to win the caucuses, should the former president run again.

Those other candidates may include Trump administration alumni. Besides Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has visited Iowa three times since the last presidential election, and talking about foreign policy and American security. In June, he launched ads in Iowa and South Carolina praising religious freedom wins in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Former Vice President Mike Pence is also visiting Iowa ahead of any 2024 announcements. His candidacy could draw ire of Trump supporters among the Republican base. But conservatives extended Pence a warm welcome in Carroll this April, where he spoke in support of re-electing Iowa Republicans and criticized Biden’s tenure as president.

Pence has faced backlash for his break with Trump on the validity of 2020 election results. But Pence still aligned himself with the former president on conservative victories from their tenure, like the many conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts. Pence said he hopes for more conservative wins in Iowa, and nationwide.

“The good news is, despite all the setbacks we’ve seen in the last year and a half, the Republican Party is fighting back all across America and all across Iowa,” Pence said.

The field is still open

While many Republicans have visited Iowa ahead of the November election, other conservative favorites have yet to stop in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Polling compiled by FiveThirtyEight shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis often comes in second behind Trump among voter rankings of potential candidates. DeSantis has yet to visit Iowa.

Chris Christie, former New Jersey governor and presidential candidate, has also stayed away from Iowa ahead of the midterms despite speculation of another presidential run. U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley and Ben Sasse are in the same boat.

Conservative politicians who are not on the national radar may also decide to enter the race in the coming year.

Brad Whitmore, a veteran who attended the Zach Nunn campaign event, said he thinks Cotton would be a good candidate for president. But he added, “Well, I think (Iowa Sen.) Joni Ernst is a possible candidate, too. She’d make a good president.”

— Kathie Obradovich contributed to this report.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

Republicans scope out 2024 presidential prospects in Iowa's midterm campaigns

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton spent his Wednesday afternoon at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Bacon Bacon in West Des Moines. He didn’t come for the food: The Arkansas conservative came to help Iowa Sen. Zach Nunn launch his campaign’s veteran coalition, offering his support in the race against incumbent U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne.

It’s not the senator’s first visit to Iowa this year. It’s his eighth since 2019. And while Cotton said his visits to Iowa are to help elect Republicans in November, Iowa Republicans are well aware of why political figures flock to their state.

“So we have Senator Cotton, Tom and his, wife, Anna, come out and join us because there’s a lot of people here in Iowa who like your leadership,” Nunn said. “And oh, I like to think that people come here and support Kelly and me, but it just so happens that Iowa’s 3rd (District) happens to be on the pathway to a certain house somewhere down the road.”

Less than two years out from the next Iowa caucuses, Republican politicians are coming to campaign in support of GOP candidates as they feel out a potential presidential candidacy.

But it’s still early for candidates to officially throw their hat into the ring. Cotton said he was in Iowa because it holds important races for Republicans’ goal to win back the House and Senate, like electing Nunn and re-electing U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.

“This is a very critical election,” Cotton told reporters. “So I’m gonna keep my eyes on the election ahead of us and we’ll decide about future elections in the future.”

Republicans take first steps in Iowa

Cotton isn’t the only one making up his mind on running. Last week, Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made her way around Iowa, joining Republican U.S. House candidates on the campaign trail and speaking at a private fundraiser for Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Haley, a former governor of South Carolina, has not officially entered the presidential race, but told reporters at an event supporting U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra that she plans to defend America in whatever role she can.

“If it looks like there’s a place for me next year, I’ve never lost a race,” Haley said, according to the Des Moines Register. “I’m not going to start now. I’ll put 1,000% in and I’ll finish it. If there’s not a place for me, I will fight for this country until my last breath.”

Some Republicans who ran for the 2016 presidential nomination are also making their way back to Iowa. U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have both made stops in the state after former President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020. Cruz, who won the 2016 Iowa caucuses, came in August 2021 to support U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson’s campaign, and promised America’s “revival is coming.”

Rubio also visited in August 2021. He said he is focused on his own re-election in Florida for 2022, but spoke about maintaining friendships in Iowa.

Trump looms large

But the 2024 Republican caucuses may not be a free-for-all like the Democratic caucuses were in 2020. Trump lost to President Joe Biden in 2020, but still holds major sway over both the Republican party and GOP voters.

Trump brought in a huge crowd at his Des Moines rally in October 2021, where he endorsed Grassley and reiterated his claims that he won the 2020 election.

But the former president has not officially said whether he plans to run again. A Democratic super PAC filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission in March, alleging he violated campaign finance laws by spending his PAC money on events without declaring his intent to run again as a presidential candidate.

“I mean, I know what I’m going to do, but we’re not supposed to be talking about it yet from the standpoint of campaign finance laws,” Trump told reporters in September, when asked about the next presidential campaign cycle.

Trump has a 53% approval rating in Iowa, according to an October 2021 Des Moines Register/Iowa Poll. But some Republicans say there’s enough room for other candidates to win the caucuses, should the former president run again.

Those other candidates may include Trump administration alumni. Besides Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has visited Iowa three times since the last presidential election, and talking about foreign policy and American security. In June, he launched ads in Iowa and South Carolina praising religious freedom wins in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Former Vice President Mike Pence is also visiting Iowa ahead of any 2024 announcements. His candidacy could draw ire of Trump supporters among the Republican base. But conservatives extended Pence a warm welcome in Carroll this April, where he spoke in support of re-electing Iowa Republicans and criticized Biden’s tenure as president.

Pence has faced backlash for his break with Trump on the validity of 2020 election results. But Pence still aligned himself with the former president on conservative victories from their tenure, like the many conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts. Pence said he hopes for more conservative wins in Iowa, and nationwide.

“The good news is, despite all the setbacks we’ve seen in the last year and a half, the Republican Party is fighting back all across America and all across Iowa,” Pence said.

The field is still open

While many Republicans have visited Iowa ahead of the November election, other conservative favorites have yet to stop in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Polling compiled by FiveThirtyEight shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis often comes in second behind Trump among voter rankings of potential candidates. DeSantis has yet to visit Iowa.

Chris Christie, former New Jersey governor and presidential candidate, has also stayed away from Iowa ahead of the midterms despite speculation of another presidential run. U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley and Ben Sasse are in the same boat.

Conservative politicians who are not on the national radar may also decide to enter the race in the coming year.

Brad Whitmore, a veteran who attended the Zach Nunn campaign event, said he thinks Cotton would be a good candidate for president. But he added, “Well, I think (Iowa Sen.) Joni Ernst is a possible candidate, too. She’d make a good president.”

— Kathie Obradovich contributed to this report.

Iowa Republican legislative primaries reveal party divisions

Rep. Dean Fisher, R-Montour, held his seat in the Iowa House of Representatives for nine years serving District 72. But starting next year, that seat will no longer exist.

Iowa’s newly redistricted election maps went into effect this year, changing the boundaries of many seats in the state Legislature. While the represented area has changed, many elected officials – including Fisher – are choosing to run for office again in their new home area.

But Fisher is not the only incumbent candidate running for the new District 53. Rep. David Maxwell, R-Gibson, is running for the same position.

“We’re taking a very gentlemanly approach to it,” Fisher said. “We’re friends and we intend to stay friends, and we’re just sticking to the issues.”

Abortion, education issues fuel GOP races

The issues — specifically, abortion and education — are fueling competitive races in the June 8 primary election. Some Republicans will compete with former colleagues for a seat after redistricting, while others are staving off challengers, including a few who have received Gov. Kim Reynolds’ endorsement. The inner-party divides have also brought in higher funding from conservative interest groups.

Fisher was also endorsed by Reynolds in May. She praised his anti-abortion values, and his votes in favor of the “fetal heartbeat” abortion law in 2018 and abortion constitutional amendment in 2020 and 2022. Maxwell voted against these measures while in office.

“We have to vote on the Iowa pro-life amendment in the next General Assembly, so I certainly want to be there to support that,” Fisher said.

There are two other races in Iowa where incumbents will face off against one another: In House District 87 between Reps. Joe Mitchell and Jeff Shipley, and in House District 66 between Reps. Steven Bradley, R-Cascade, and Lee Hein.

Conservative interest groups pour cash into primaries

Rep. Steven Bradley, R-Cascade, said abortion was also a major issue for his primary race. He and Fisher were endorsed by the Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization, for their votes opposing abortion. Bradley has received over $18,000 during the primary campaign from Family Leader and Americans for Prosperity, another conservative organization.

“I’m very pro-life and I vote pro-life, I’m the only pro-life candidate in this race,” Bradley said. “Especially since the Roe v. Wade leak came out, this has been a big focus for the election.”

Bradley is financially backed in this primary race by anti-abortion groups, receiving over $10,000 in May from Family Leader, campaign finance disclosures show. Americans for Prosperity also provided his campaign with over $12,000 in the past month.

“It’s just totally astronomical the amount of dollars that are being dumped into this race,” Rep. Lee Hein, R-Monticello, said. “But I think they’re trying to prove a point, I think it’s more about influence at the Capitol than it is who’s the better person in the race.”

Hein voted in favor of anti-abortion measures including blocking Planned Parenthood from public funding, as well as 24- and 72-hour waiting periods for abortions, but voted against the “fetal heartbeat” law.

Hein said he believes anti-abortion measures are important, but that there are other issues voters care about. Examples include the tax cuts approved during his time as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, and his role in passing a bill mandating most gas stations sell fuel with 15% ethanol, which Bradley initially opposed.

“My opponent would like to make it all about abortion, because as I said, he doesn’t have the experience, or the leadership knowledge in the House,” Hein said. “I think he wants to make it a one issue (race). I think it’s a part, I just think there’s more to talk about.”

Abortion isn’t the only issue dividing Republicans this primary season. During the 2022 legislative session, the governor rallied to pass a measure which would provide 10,000 Iowa students scholarships to attend private schools, financed by taxpayer money. House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hampton, said in May there was not enough party support for the program to pass.

In House District 87, Shipley of Fairfield has used his support both of Reynolds’ scholarship bill and anti-LGBTQ measures as a talking point in campaign mailers. He has criticized Mitchell of Mount Pleasant, for not supporting Reynolds’ measure or pro-conversion therapy legislation while in office.

“Why is Joe Mitchell praising teachers who claim America is racist and confusing students on gender,” a Shipley campaign mailer sent to district residents asks.

Reynolds’ education policy drives some endorsements

Passing the education bill is one policy goal driving Reynolds to endorse candidates challenging incumbent Republicans for the first time. Among them are candidate Zachary Dieken in House District 5, challenging Rep. Dennis Bush, R-Cherokee, and candidate Barb Kniff McCulla, facing off against Rep. Jon Thorup, R-Knoxville.

These candidates have not just received the governor’s support, but also major funding from conservative groups in their races. The American Federation for Children Action Fund put over $25,000 toward Dieken’s campaign in May, according to campaign finance reports. Kniff McCulla received more than $10,000 from the fund and more than $22,000 from Americans for Prosperity in May.

During the 2022 legislative session, Thorup — the incumbent facing Kniff McCulla — was one of several Republicans who opposed Reynolds’ private school scholarship bill.

“I have voted for several things that, in my opinion, expand school choice,” Thorup said. “But I think the term ‘school choice’ has gotten very confused, between school choice and educational vouchers.”

Thorup said he has concerns about the governor’s bill in its current form because it could lead to the merging of school districts in rural areas such as his own, as well as the state increasing property taxes to finance this investment down the road.

Reynolds said in her endorsement she believes Kniff McCulla would support a “pro-family and pro-parent agenda” in the Iowa Legislature. Kniff McCulla did not return messages seeking comment.

While Thorup said he was “surprised” by endorsements in this primary race, he has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, and the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Thorup said while much of the outside focus has been on the education bill, he feels confident in his conservative bonafides. He’s been rated the 4th most conservative member of the Iowa House by the American Conservative Union, has experience as state trooper, and is passionate about Second Amendment and “pro-life” legislation.

“I think if I agree with the governor on nine out of ten issues — that tenth issue, if we disagree on it, that should be okay,” he said.


Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.