Iowa’s sparsely populated northwest is a key GOP caucus battleground for both Trump and DeSantis

Jan 13, 2024, 6:07 AM

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis samples praline pecan before ordering a cone at the Blue Bunny Ice Cream ...

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis samples praline pecan before ordering a cone at the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor in LeMars, Iowa, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. The parlor is a common stop for Republicans when campaigning in northwest Iowa, where social conservatives carry outsize influence in Iowa's Republican caucuses and where DeSantis and Trump are competing aggressively for evangelical conservatives. (AP Photo/Thomas Beaumont)

(AP Photo/Thomas Beaumont)

ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Some of the most contested real estate for Iowa’s Republican caucuses is a vast, wind-swept plain where hogs outnumber people by the millions.

Northwest Iowa’s landscape is sparse, made up of high plains, in places marked by fields of soaring white wind turbines. The landscape is interrupted by pig farms with their telltale squat barns and pungent odor.

This is the evangelical Christian heart of conservative Iowa. While its population is dispersed over dozens of snowy counties, the tens of thousands of voters here are often critical in GOP races. Both former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have invested in appealing to politically influential evangelicals, making the fight for northwest Iowa a microcosm of the race to win Monday’s caucuses.

Trump had scheduled two rallies this weekend in the region before canceling due to winter weather. DeSantis has spent long hours courting voters here, stopping Thursday in Rock Rapids, population 2,600, before heading to Le Mars, about four times larger.

While Republican candidates in Iowa aren’t talking as much about abortion rights, a reflection in part of concerns that the issue is a winning one for Democrats, many voters and pastors in northwest Iowa say that’s still their central focus.

“Speaking for my parishioners, a lot of them look back at Trump and say, among recent presidents, he’s done more for the pro-life cause,” said the Rev. John Vermeer of Rock Rapids, among the many clergy in the region who are part of the conservative Reformed Church brought to the area with settlers from the Netherlands more than 150 years ago.

“There’s another side that’s disappointed with what seems like pragmatism,” Vermeer said. “And people around here know Gov. DeSantis’ record.”

Despite the Trump flags whipping in bracing January winds and signs for the former president propped along fence rows, DeSantis is competing with him aggressively here. Several people interviewed in recent days noted that DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida. Trump has criticized a six-week ban as too strict and opposes a national abortion ban, arguing it would hurt Republicans politically.

DeSantis is hoping to replicate the success of several recent caucus winners.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with his social conservative brand, competed strongly for northwest Iowa in 2016 and edged Trump in the region on his way to a narrow caucus victory. In 2012, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum followed Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s winning 2008 GOP caucus formula with a socially conservative message that helped him win across the region.

While doing fewer events in Iowa than his rivals, Trump has far from ignored the the swath, though he has spent more time in eastern Iowa’s larger cities. Last week, Trump was in Sioux Center, the seat of Sioux County, where he won 82% of the vote in 2020.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, aiming for a surprise second-place finish in Iowa, has campaigned in northwest Iowa, but less often and to smaller audiences. Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has been across the region as well, though appears to have sparked less of a following than DeSantis or Trump.

Randy Vande Berg, who came to see DeSantis in Rock Rapids, credited Trump for nominating the U.S. Supreme Court justices who helped overturn the landmark abortion-rights case Roe v. Wade in 2022. The long-sought goal by abortion opponents is a common point among Trump supporters who acknowledge that his three marriages, for instance, make him an unconventional choice for devout Christians.

“It’s all in the record. I don’t care what he says. He’s responsible for overturning Roe,” said Vande Berg, a 67-year-old insurance agent. “No one else running has credentials like that.”

DeSantis and Trump promote lists of politically influential northwest Iowa pastors backing them, though some voters around here who would vote for Trump in an instant in a general election were disappointed in his comments blaming Republican underperformance in the 2022 midterm elections on GOP candidates with strict anti-abortion positions.

“It’s just disheartening. Life is life. There’s just no question,” said 38-year-old Heidi Kock, a bank employee and Republican who plans to support DeSantis in Monday’s caucuses. “I know where Gov. DeSantis’ heart is. And he has the record to back it up.”

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Iowa’s sparsely populated northwest is a key GOP caucus battleground for both Trump and DeSantis