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DeSantis touts completion of 99-county Iowa tour as measure of leadership


DeSantis touts completion of 99-county Iowa tour as measure of leadership

Dec 02, 2023 | 8:06 pm ET
By Jay Waagmeester
DeSantis touts completion of 99-county Iowa tour as measure of leadership
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis touts his completion of the "full Grassley" 99-county Iowa tour Dec. 2, 2023 in Newton. (Photo by Jay Waagmeester for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

NEWTON – With a month and a half to go until Iowa caucuses, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held an event marking his completion of visits to all 99 Iowa counties. His final stop was Saturday in Jasper County.  

Welcomed by Gov. Kim Reynolds and Bob Vander Plaats, two of his most prominent supporters, DeSantis reminisced on the 98 counties he visited before Jasper, including having played baseball on the Field of Dreams, having attended the Cy-Hawk football game in September and his tour of Iowa Sen. Dan Zumbach’s family farm in Delaware County. 

“I don’t think doing the 99-counties is just about the caucus … I think it has significance beyond there,” DeSantis said. “The fact that I’m willing to do this, that should show you that I consider myself a servant, not a ruler.” 

DeSantis, in a nod to rival Republican candidate Donald Trump, said no candidate is entitled to support, instead it must be earned. He said he’s earned that support with the 99-county tour “… and we’re going to continue to do it all the way through Jan. 15.”

The Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll in late October showed DeSantis trailing Trump by 25 percentage points among likely Republican caucusgoers. He was tied for second place with Nikki Haley at 16%.

FiveThirtyEight polls show Trump holding a nearly 48% lead over DeSantis nationally, as of Nov. 30.  Trump, campaigning in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, urged supporters to turn out on caucus night and not assume the race was over.

DeSantis said after Thanksgiving, in a statement released by his campaign, that voters are just starting to engage with the campaigns as the caucus nears.

Reynolds on DeSantis’ record 

Reynolds announced “full support” of DeSantis on Nov. 6, at a DeSantis campaign event in Des Moines. 

Iowa governors typically do not endorse candidates for president before the first-in-the-nation caucuses, in effort to create a neutral environment for all candidates to prove themselves. However, Reynolds said there is “just too much at stake” to not endorse a candidate in this election. 

Reynolds’ endorsement has been controversial among Trump supporters and the former president has criticized Reynolds for her endorsement of DeSantis multiple times, including calling her “the nation’s most unpopular governor.” 

Reynolds has said she does not believe Trump can win in 2024. Reynolds and DeSantis were both elected governor in their respective states in 2018, and have frequently commented on their competitiveness with policies, including a 6-week abortion ban, prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors and how each of them handle their state’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

“If you like what we’re doing here in Iowa, you’re going to love what Ron DeSantis will do for this country,” Reynolds said Saturday. “I believe in him with every fiber of my being.” 

Reynolds, encouraging Iowans to caucus, said the Republican Party does not “have the luxury of getting it wrong.” 

DeSantis said his 99-county tour proved to him that Iowa will start the revival of the United States. Reynolds said Iowa is where America’s comeback begins.

Myrna Goodyk from Sully, who attended the event, said DeSantis has been her favorite since before Reynolds’ endorsement and that the Florida governor has proven himself in a lot of ways, but Reynolds’ endorsement was a positive for her. 

“She’s endorsing DeSantis and that is one thing that makes it easier, because she’s quite a lady,” Goodyk said, adding that she is also encouraged by Vander Plaats’ endorsement. 

Vander Plaats: ‘Trump is still a friend’

Vander Plaats, CEO of The Family Leader, a Christian-conservative organization, endorsed DeSantis on Nov. 21. He said at the time that DeSantis stood out to him as the best candidate because he “has the spine” and experience to win. 

DeSantis touts completion of 99-county Iowa tour as measure of leadership
Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats, right, speaks at a Ron DeSantis campaign event Dec. 2, 2023 in Newton. (Photo by Jay Waagmeester for Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In the announcement of his endorsement, Vander Plaats emphasized that DeSantis would not be a lame duck if elected, as opposed to Trump, who would be eligible to serve one term if elected, a narrative he continued Saturday in Newton.

Vander Plaats said he sees this cycle as DeSantis’ moment. “I take a look at, not only will he win in 2024, he will lead on day one and for two terms. And that’s what this country needs, a two- term president.”

The evangelical leader said Trump is still a friend of his. “Donald Trump has been a friend of mine for well over a dozen years, it’s getting harder, but I’m still gonna be a friend,” Vander Plaats said.

As Republicans decide the most viable route to the White House, there have been concerns of a split. Vander Plaats and Reynolds have tried to unite voters away from Trump, but poll numbers so far have shown little sway.

“Voting for Ron DeSantis is not against Donald Trump, it is about the future of our country,” Vander Plaats said.

As an alternative to Trump and with the future on the line, Vander Plaats said, DeSantis “can spend his time defending this country versus defending himself.”

‘The full Grassley’

For 43 years in a row, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has held a constituent meeting in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. 

Now, DeSantis has finished the tour, which has been coined “the full Grassley.” DeSantis is the only candidate in the field to do so.

DeSantis said the tour “was the right thing to do.” Reynolds complimented DeSantis for the dedication, and said the tour allows Iowans the opportunity to ask tough questions of candidates.

Both Reynolds and DeSantis said the campaign’s completion of the tour is a chance to see what people are dealing with as well as a chance to show that when he says he will do something, he will follow through with it. They said it is a positive indication of who he would be as president. 

In a call with reporters this week, Grassley, without hinting at any endorsements, said it would be nice if all candidates in the field did a full Grassley, “because Iowans ought to have a chance to see them in their hometowns, but that’s up to the individual’s choice. I think it’s a good way to let them know that they’re serious about taking Iowa caucus voters seriously.”

DeSantis compares himself to Reagan

“We’ve got to have a president that can come in and not just be a caretaker for four years, but to be a change agent for eight years,” DeSantis said. 

DeSantis he will restore America into a “shining city on a hill” like former President Ronald Reagan intended. 

In another nod to Reagan, DeSantis called him the greatest president since World War II.

While DeSantis trails Trump, the shrinking field has created opportunities for the remaining candidates. Anne Walford from Grinnell said since Sen. Tim Scott has dropped out of the race, her support is between DeSantis and Haley. 

Trump “has too much baggage right now,” Walford said, but said she would vote for him if he won the Republican nomination. 

DeSantis said he sees Trump’s policies as sound overall, but pointed out what he would do differently if elected. 

“We will do personnel a lot differently than he did” and he will handle China differently, DeSantis said. “His praise for Xi Jinping, to me, I just disagree with that, I mean, they unleashed COVID in this world, they unleashed fentanyl in this country. He’s not somebody to be lauded or complimented.”

Steve Failor, a semi-retired farmer from outside of Newton, said he is leaning toward DeSantis because of Trump’s age and baggage, despite approving of his policies. 

“Trump’s my age or a little older, I think he’s a little too old, actually,” Failor said. “… I like his policies, don’t like some of the things he’s said. I’m really disenchanted with most of our politicians as far as what’s been going on.” 

DeSantis is a fresh face with a strong record in Florida, Failor said. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture in Iowa

DeSantis said as president he would order cabinet secretaries to reduce the footprint of federal agencies in Washington by at least 50%. 

“You guys will have first dibs on the Department of Agricutlure,” DeSantis said.

Newsom debate

DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom debated on Thursday, and for 90 minutes clashed on American borders, the performance of Joe Biden, COVID-19 pandemic response and more. 

In Newton, DeSantis said the debate is “the most substantive debate that this country has had this entire political season,” and said his performance shows he can perform against all Democratic comers. 

“We can not assume that they’re actually going to run Biden,” DeSantis said. He claimed major Democrats do not want Biden to run. “We gotta be prepared for whatever they throw at us.”

DeSantis said he saw the debate as an opportunity to share conservative principles on a national stage. 

“If I have 90 minutes on national television to articulate conservative principles, to show how freedom works and to articulate a path forward for this country, I’m going to take that opportunity,” DeSantis said.

Reynolds showed pride in DeSantis’ performance.

“I was so proud, so proud, he went to the mat to fight for our values, to fight for parents, to fight for our freedom,” Reynolds said. “It was such a stark contrast between conservative policies and the insanity, I don’t know how else to describe it, that we see from the Biden administration… he knocked it out of the park.”