DAVENPORT, IOWA — Former President Donald Trump, in his first Iowa stop as an official presidential candidate, took aim at a potential rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Trump said if DeSantis joins the 2024 presidential race, his track record on ethanol and Social Security could cost him the Iowa caucuses. “I don’t think you’re gonna be doing so well here,” Trump said. “But we’re gonna find out.”
In 2017, DeSantis – then a U.S. representative – supported legislation that would have ended the Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets how much renewable energy must be be blended into the nation’s fuel supply. Trump said he would defend the Iowa ethanol industry from lawmakers seeking to cut subsidies, and he pledged to support increasing ethanol production.
“Just as I did for four straight years, I will protect the ethanol and I will go after anyone who wishes to destroy it,” Trump said.
Trump came in second in the Iowa caucuses in 2016 to another anti-ethanol candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
But Trump said Monday that DeSantis’ record of supporting changes to Social Security and Medicare like raising the retirement age to 70, also will make him unpopular in Iowa.
Trump said DeSantis reminded him of Republicans like U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney and former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who he called a “RINO (Republican in Name Only) loser.”
More than 1,000 people came to see the former president speak at Adler Theater in Davenport, with a line stretching around the block. After the theater reached capacity, some people stayed outside while he spoke.
DeSantis held a book tour event Friday in Davenport. His stops there and in Des Moines with Gov. Kim Reynolds marked his first trip to Iowa.
Trump slips in Iowa Poll
While DeSantis has not yet announced a bid for the presidency, the governor is considered a strong alternative to Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination.
The most recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll found a majority of Iowans still see Trump in a positive light: 80% of Iowa Republicans said they have a “very favorable” view or “mostly favorable” view of the candidate. If Trump wins the GOP nomination, 74% of Republicans responded they would likely vote for him.
But that support is shifting: 47% of Iowa Republicans said they would definitely vote for him in the 2023 poll, down from 69% who said in the June 2021 poll that they would definitely support him.
The poll also found other potential candidates gaining attention. DeSantis was viewed favorably by 74% of Iowa Republicans.
The poll was conducted March 5-8 by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, gathering responses from 805 Iowa participants, 257 who were self-identified Republicans. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for the overall poll and a 6.1% margin of error for responses from only Republicans.
Some Republicans who attended last week’s events with DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said they supported Trump in 2020, but were looking at other options for 2024. They cited concerns about splitting the party or losing again in the general election.
Tensions grew in the Republican National Committee after the 2022 midterms, where Republicans did worse than expected. Some Republicans said Trump’s influence hurt GOP candidate’s chances. Trump said 98.6% of the candidates he endorsed in the 2022 midterms won their elections. The New York Times reported that rate was lower, at 82%.
“You hear the fake news saying, ‘Oh, he didn’t do so well in the midterms,’” Trump said. “I did well, the party didn’t do that well, because we have people like Mitch McConnell and others that didn’t allow it.”
Tim Ramirez, a Davenport Trump supporter, said he’s not worried about other candidates besting Trump in the presidential nominating process.
“If I’m concerned, I’m concerned (about) if they’re able to steal another election from him,” Ramirez said. “But for the most part, I’m not concerned, because, you know, especially running against all these other Republicans, I think he’s gonna be great.”
The last time Trump was in Iowa was just before the 2022 midterm elections, where he spoke in support of Reynolds, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and other Iowa Republicans. Reynolds joined Trump Monday, saying Trump has not turned his back on the Midwest as President Joe Biden did.
“Joe Biden isn’t just asleep at the wheel, that car is out of gas,” Reynolds said. “It is such a contrast to the Trump administration, where Iowa families, farmers and small businesses won, America was strong and energy independent, common sense prevailed and our border was under control.”
Trump calls for nationwide ‘school choice’ program
Trump joined the pack of Republican presidential hopefuls touting their education policies on the Iowa campaign trail. He said 2024 is the “final battle” on breaking up corruption in Washington, D.C. — and in the U.S. education system.
He promised to take on the federal Department of Education if reelected to the presidency, saying America consistently ranks as one of the highest spenders on education, but ranks low on educational success rates.
“So we spent three to four times more on educating a pupil, and yet we’re at the bottom of the list,” Trump said. “They’re at the top of the list and they spend much less money, so you know the system doesn’t work. So breaking up the Department of Education is a very simple thing to do.”
The crowd gave Trump standing ovations when he said he would cut federal funding for schools and programs that promote “critical race theory,” “transgender ideology” and inappropriate racial, sexual or political content, as well as when he promised to cut funding for schools with vaccine mandates.
“You know the amazing thing about that? The hand you get for that is bigger than ‘We’re going to be energy independent,’” Trump said. “The amazing thing is, 10 years (ago), if somebody said that you wouldn’t even know what they’re talking about. But they can mutilate our children without your permission. Parental rights. I said the other day I will bring back parental rights into our school system.”
The March Iowa Poll found 54% of respondents supported banning both teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation for K-6 students. For both subjects, 44% of respondents opposed a ban, and 2% were not sure.
Trump also called for the direct election of school principals by the parents. He praised Reynolds for passing “universal school choice” — the private school scholarship program signed into law in January — and said he would implement a “school choice” program nationwide.
“I’ve always been very, very strong on education,” Trump said. “I’ve seen what you’ve done here, and as president, I’ll fight to expand that right to every single state in America.”
Many of these proposals Iowa Republicans have already passed into law, or are in the process of codifying this legislative session. In 2021, lawmakers passed a ban on teaching “critical race theory.” This year, Reynolds’ education bill, Senate File 496, proposed banning instruction on “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” for K-3 students. House File 348, a different bill that passed the Iowa House, would ban these subjects for students in kindergarten through 6th grade.
Trump said protecting women’s sports is a top priority, making jokes about asking pro basketball star LeBron James to identify as a woman to win games. He praised Reynolds for signing a law banning transgender women from women’s and girl’s teams in Iowa schools and colleges.
Trump’s not the only Republican honing in on education policy and LGBTQ issues in schools on the Iowa caucus trail. Former Vice President Mike Pence spoke in Cedar Rapids in February against Linn-Mar Community School District’s gender affirmation policy. At his debut Iowa events, DeSantis also highlighted Florida Republicans’ success getting “parental rights” measures signed into law.
State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, and senior adviser for Trump’s Iowa campaign, held a panel discussion before Trump’s speech with Rep. Brooke Boden, R-Indianola, Scott Count Sheriff Tim Lane, manufacturer Matt Giese, and Cedar County Supervisor Mike Dixler on education, law enforcement and business.
Boden, who heads the House Government Oversight Committee, said Trump is looking at federal policies that mirror “parents’ rights” measures passed by Iowa lawmakers, including a prohibition on sexually explicit materials in school libraries.
She said Iowa lawmakers are also trying to find ways to “empower teachers.” Lawmakers have advanced legislation allowing teachers to use “reasonable and necessary” physical conduct in violent situations with students. Another bill would protect teachers and other students from disciplinary action for not using a transgender student’s preferred name and pronouns, if they differ from their legal name and gender.
“This is something that I think President Trump is also looking at, is we’ve got to make sure we have transparency in our schools and our teachers are protected,” Boden said. “They’re at the frontlines everyday as well and they have a say and a right as well in the classroom. We got to stand behind them, and administration needs to too.”
Geralyn Jones, a Moms for Liberty member and parent in the Linn-Mar Community School District, said she’s been astounded by the national focus on the school district’s gender support plan policy and the lawsuit filed against it. She said she’s glad that presidential hopefuls are talking more about this case – and schools in general – in Iowa.
“I think it’s an important topic because it’s educating parents on things that are taking place in our schools,” Jones said. “And by educating parents on what is taking place, and then how they can either support it or how they can learn to be ahead of it, just because it basically encourages that relationship with their school, regardless of what side they are on.”
Robin Opsahl is a reporter for the Iowa Capital Dispatch, which first published this report.
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