6 Months Out From Must-Win Iowa Caucuses, Trump Actively Sabotaging His Chances

DES MOINES, Iowa — As Republican presidential hopefuls criss-cross the first-voting state in the primaries in the hopes of knocking off Donald Trump, the coup-attempting former president appears to be doing all he can to help them.

Trump continues to avoid the sort of small-group, “retail” politicking Iowans have come to expect from candidates. Last month, he skipped Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” fundraiser. Last week, he began attacking the state’s popular Republican governor for refusing to endorse him. And on Friday, he is skipping a major candidates forum hosted by the Family Leader, a prominent evangelical Christian group in a state where those voters make up the majority of likely GOP caucusgoers.

“I don’t think he’s doing himself any favors in Iowa,” said Thomas Bean, the 23-year-old vice president of the local Bull Moose Club for under-40 Republicans. “He thinks it’s in the bag for him.”

Trump is leading his rivals by substantial margins in both national polls as well as the relatively few Iowa polls that have been conducted so far this year. But Iowa veterans point out that polling leads six months out from voting have historically meant little — former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was leading Iowa eight years ago — and that most Republican caucusgoers have not yet started paying close attention to the race.

“People want to kick the tires three or four times,” said Keith Hunter, a board member of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which on Thursday evening sponsored a house party for biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. “And they’ll decide late.”

A common view among Republican consultants and political observers is that an Iowa loss for Trump could prove fatal to his chances to win back the White House and thereby protect himself from the various criminal prosecutions he faces.

Former President Donald Trump is greeted by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds as he arrives for an event at the Adler Theatre on March 13, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa. Trump’s visit follows those by potential challengers for the GOP presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who hosted events in the state last week.

Trump has not offered any public explanation for skipping the Family Leader Summit, where, eight years earlier, he famously told interviewer Frank Luntz that John McCain was not a war hero for having spent six years in a Hanoi prison after being shot down, and that he preferred people who did not get captured.

His campaign did attempt to send Trump ally and Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance as a surrogate in his place, but Family Leader officials would not permit it.

The Trump campaign did not respond to HuffPost’s queries about the skipped summit or about his criticism of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who last autumn won a landslide reelection and who remains a favorite of Republicans in the state.

“It’s classic Trump. He feels entitled to everybody’s endorsement,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican consultant from Iowa who worked on Reynolds’ campaigns in both 2018 and 2022. “He also has a penchant for self-destructive behavior.”

In posts to his personal social media platform last weekend, Trump suggested that he appointed Reynold’s predecessor as his ambassador to China in 2017 specifically so she could, as lieutenant governor, step up to the governorship. He also claimed that his endorsement in 2018 allowed her to win her first, full four-year term.

Kochel called Trump’s boast absurd, pointing out that in 2018 Trump was deeply unpopular among swing voters and mainly energized Democrats to turn out against him. “Him endorsing her probably hurt her,” Kochel said. “That’s why she had a close race in 2018.”

“It’s classic Trump. He feels entitled to everybody’s endorsement.”

– David Kochel, longtime Republican consultant from Iowa

On Thursday, Trump’s public attack on Reynolds led to the withdrawal of an endorsement from Iowa state Sen. Jeff Reichman, who instead is now backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Pete Hoekstra, a former Michigan congressman who served as Trump’s ambassador to the Netherlands, said he did not understand the point of going after Reynolds, and agreed that Trump’s absence at Family Leader would be noticed. “I know how seriously Iowans take the commitment of the candidates,” he said.

Hoekstra was in Des Moines this week to help the long shot presidential campaign of an old friend from Michigan, Perry Johnson. He introduced the businessman to a small gathering of the Bull Moose Club’s members at a local brewery, where the self-made quality control expert railed against the national debt among wooden barrels and worn vinyl easy chairs.

Hoekstra said Trump had plenty of time to make up for hurt feelings, but that a bigger issue for him could be the multiple criminal charges and ongoing investigations. Republican voters, as decision time approaches, will consider that baggage as they choose their nominee for next November to face incumbent Democratic President Joe Biden.

“We don’t want to wake up the day after Election Day and say: Gee, we lost again,” Hoekstra said.

Kochel, who has run Iowa campaigns for multiple presidential campaigns, said most of the candidates other than Trump — South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and Ramaswamy — continue to visit Republican and activist groups all over the state with the goal of making themselves the best alternative to Trump. All six are scheduled to appear at the Family Leader conference on Friday, where each will be interviewed onstage for about a half hour by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

“They’re all trying to do it the old-fashioned way, trying to earn it,” Kochel said. “The race has not fully matured yet. … Seventy percent of Iowans are open to somebody else. You’ve got to make the case.”

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