Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Iowa Republicans Friday that standing strong in the culture wars around issues like education, criminal justice and health care in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic will help their party win elections.
DeSantis, along with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, spoke to more than 600 Iowans at the Iowa State Fairgrounds’ Elwell Family Food Center in Des Moines about the partisan divides in American culture.
Liberals and national media attacked him for actions like reopening schools and banning vaccine mandates, DeSantis said, but he didn’t let those criticisms stop him from taking action. And the 2022 election proved voters didn’t want him to stop, he said.
“They can’t veto you doing the right thing,” DeSantis said. “So we just do the right thing, let the chips fall where they may, we fight that. But the truth is, all I can tell you is I got elected by 32,000 votes. I spent four years of them attacking me and me fighting back, and I won by 1.5 million so I’m fine with that.”
DeSantis’ Des Moines event and a Davenport stop earlier Friday were his first two Iowa events ahead of the 2024 Iowa GOP caucuses, but he has not yet officially announced he’s running for president. His events in Iowa were a part of his “freedom blueprint” tour for his book, The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival.
The Iowa Caucuses will kick off the presidential nominating season for Republicans in 2024. National Democrats have moved to drop Iowa from its early-state nominating lineup.
Reynolds and DeSantis share a similar trajectory to the governor’s office. Both were elected for the first time in 2018 — though Reynolds took over the office earlier when former Gov. Terry Branstad left to serve as former President Donald Trump’s ambassador to China. And under their leadership, Reynolds said, both states changed from purple to red.
While Republicans didn’t win as much ground nationally in the 2022 midterms, she said both Iowa and Florida had a “big old red wave.”
Both governors attributed Republicans’ successes in the two states to their approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic — reopening schools, prohibiting vaccine mandates and getting workers back in the field.
Reynolds and DeSantis joked about derogatory nicknames critics gave them during the pandemic for reopening schools: “COVID Kim” and “DeathSantis.”
“Who was right, by the way? Who was right?,” Reynolds said.
DeSantis also talked about his work in Florida’s public schools. Alongside reinstituting in-person classes during the pandemic, DeSantis said his administration removed critical race theory and pornography from schools.
Approaches to issues like schools and law enforcement are areas where different parts of the country have the biggest divides, he said. He talked about supporting law enforcement officers during the nationwide protests following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minnesota police in 2020, passing anti-protesting laws and getting rid of prosecutors who refused to enforce certain laws.
These problems — as well as bad budgeting and high taxes — are making people leave liberal states, he said.
“People respond to good policy,” DeSantis said. “They respond to good leadership. We compare Florida to New York, which is the closest state to us population-wise. We have millions of more people than New York state now.”
DeSantis has been highlighted by political experts as an alternative to former President Donald Trump as the GOP’s challenger to President Joe Biden. Trump is scheduled to visit Davenport on Monday.
In a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll published Friday, DeSantis was viewed favorably by 74% of Iowa Republicans compared to Trump’s 80%. But other results showed potentially waning support for Trump: The poll found 47% of Republicans say they would definitely vote for him, down 22 percentage points from a June 2021 poll, when 69% of Republicans said they would definitely support him.
The poll, conducted March 5 through 8 by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, had 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.
A Des Moines man in the audience on Friday, Rodney Bergren, said he loves what DeSantis has done in Florida, and thinks those ideas would do well nationally. While he’s not committed to DeSantis — he said former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, also in Iowa Friday, is an interesting candidate — he said he wants someone other than Trump as the Republican 2024 presidential candidate.
“The thing with Trump is he speaks to the normal person,” Bergren said. “He speaks to Joe Six Pack. I don’t hate Trump. … I would like to see somebody that doesn’t get in so much hot water all the time, I guess.”
This story was published first by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom network, which includes the Florida Phoenix. States Newsroom is a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.