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After a slow start to caucus campaigning, Republicans start courting Iowa voters

Protestors calling for LGBTQ rights stand outside a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where former Vice President Mike Pence is speaking on Feb. 15, 2023.
Clay Masters
/
Iowa Public Radio
Protestors calling for LGBTQ rights stand outside a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where former Vice President Mike Pence is speaking on Feb. 15, 2023.

It's been slower than past cycles but presidential hopefuls are starting to make trips to Iowa a year ahead of the Iowa caucuses. The Democratic National Committee voted earlier this month to remove Iowa from the early window of presidential nominating states for a variety of reasons including its botched 2020 results. Republicans, however, are sticking with tradition.

Former Vice President Mike Pence was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa last week, the same day a federal appeals court in Minnesota heard arguments by a group representing parents of students in the Linn-Mar Community School District near Cedar Rapids.

Parents of the district sued over a policy adopted last year allowing students there to ask to use a gender-affirming name or pronouns without including their parents.

Politicians with presidential stars in their eyes are testing the waters in Iowa

Pence was speaking at a local Pizza Ranch, a chain restaurant based in Iowa that is popular among Republicans visiting the state while campaigning. Pence has not declared that he's running for president but it's commonplace for politicians to start showing up in Iowa well ahead of making it official.

As he spoke inside, more than fifty protesters stood along the street outside the restaurant holding signs in support of LGBTQ youth.

"Is this all the Republican Party stands for? Because that's what it seems like these days," Hiawatha City Council member Aime Wichtendahl said. Wichtendahl is thought to be the first trans person elected to office in Iowa. "Republican politicians just beat up on trans kids to be divisive and to get the votes of the base and it's absolutely disgusting."

"We are going to defend parent's rights and the children of Iowa and America," Pence said to the applause of the small group of supporters gathered in the restaurant's event room.

Iowa swung to the right over the past decade

Iowa Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson introduces former Vice President Mike Pence to a crowd of Iowans in an event room at a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Feb. 15, 2023.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
/
Iowa Public Radio
Iowa Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson introduces former Vice President Mike Pence to a crowd of Iowans in an event room at a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Feb. 15, 2023.

The Iowa caucuses are famously the first-in-the-nation to test primary candidates and that's still true for Republicans. Former President Donald Trump's announcement last year that he's making another run seemed to have an early chilling effect on the race. But politicians like Pence are flying out here to craft their stump speeches and get in front of potential voters.

Iowa U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson highlighted that Democrats will not be starting in Iowa when she introduced Pence.

"It's very clear that the Democrats think that Iowa is flyover country," Hinson said. "They don't want to hear from Iowans and they don't want their candidates to have to answer Iowans tough questions."

Republicans will be taking those questions in a state that has marched to the right over the last decade.

Voters here chose Barack Obama twice and then turned around and backed Trump in the next two general elections. Democrats lost even more ground in the midterm.

The last remaining Democrat in the state's Congressional delegation was toppled in 2022 and two major statewide Democratic offices turned red.

Trump's chilling effect on the race may be warming

Former Republican Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake speaks to potential Iowa caucusgoers at a rally in Ankeny, Iowa on Feb. 11, 2023. Lake is a native of Iowa and told Iowans to ask candidates where they stand on "election integrity" as they parade through the state.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
/
Iowa Public Radio
Former Republican Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake speaks to potential Iowa caucusgoers at a rally in Ankeny, Iowa on Feb. 11, 2023. Lake is a native of Iowa and told Iowans to ask candidates where they stand on "election integrity" as they parade through the state.

In true Iowa tradition, it is not only the highest Republican officeholders – current or former – flocking to the Hawkeye state.

Iowa native and failed Arizona governor candidate Kari Lake visited in early February and drew hundreds of people.

But the former president still looms large over the Republican contest that is still in its earliest stages.

"I'd like [Trump] to support somebody," Republican voter Margaret Saddoris told NPR when asked about former President Trump at a Lake event in Ankeny, Iowa. "I think there's just too much drama there."

Saddoris said she would still vote for Trump. John Whipple was also at this rally in suburban Des Moines.

He likes Trump and would also like to see Florida Governor Ron DeSantis get into the race.

"I think they would both do a good job," Whipple said. "Some people seem to, even though they support Trump, just are kind of thinking maybe it's time to move on."

Even former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was at the Lake event. He's not picking favorites in the primary even though he served as U.S. Ambassador to China under Trump.

"I want them all to feel welcome," said Branstad, who is the longest serving governor in U.S. history. "I want to do my part to encourage them to come early and often ... and let the Iowa voters decide who they think is the best and strongest candidate."

One caucus is nothing like another

The last contested primary for Republicans happened in the 2016 campaign cycle. The Republican Party then looked very different than it does today.

For example, in January of 2015, there was a big day of Republican speeches. Iowans heard from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also spoke. At that time, Donald Trump was there and nobody really seemed to take him all that seriously.

But voters were taking Trump seriously.

As caucus campaigning continued through that year and into 2016, the feeling among the other candidates in the Republican field seemed to focus on who was going to be the candidate to take out Trump.

And in language that will be reminiscent of more recent U.S. elections, when Cruz won the caucus, Trump called foul and declared the vote to be invalid. That was not the case. But, he did go on to winnow down the Republican field, ultimately becoming the nominee and winning the presidential election.

Trump has not visited Iowa this time around, despite declaring his candidacy notably early in November of 2022.

Iowa is still important - at least for Republicans - but it's definitely been a slower start than in 2016 or from the Democrats in 2020.

Some candidates make it official while others just enjoy Iowa...for now

Meanwhile, back at the Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids, Pence was asked by the press to comment on former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley who recently announced her bid for the presidency.

"Ambassador Nikki Haley did a great job in our administration, and she may have more company soon in the race for president," Pence said with a smile. "I promise folks here in Iowa and all of you I'll keep you posted."

It's the sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge comment that highlights just how important Iowa is to the primary process – and in a contested Republican primary, every vote matters.

That's why you'll see Haley in Iowa, courting voters. Her fellow South Carolinian Sen. Tim Scott is in Iowa this week, too.

Copyright 2023 Iowa Public Radio

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.