Jan 15, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Haley, DeSantis focus late pitches on Iowa suburbs

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis greets supporters during a campaign event in Ankeny, Iowa, on Sunday. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

ANKENY, IowaNikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are spending the final hours before tonight's Iowa caucuses in the snowy I-80 and I-35 corridors, courting suburban voters who want an alternative to GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.

Why it matters: The late rush in Iowa is a snow-covered version of election battles to come across the U.S. in 2024, as both parties fight for voters in suburbs that aren't heavily Republican red or Democratic blue.

Driving the news: DeSantis on Sunday campaigned in Ankeny, a northern suburb of Des Moines, while Haley was in Adel, about a half-hour drive west of Iowa's capital (when there aren't semi-trucks jackknifed in the snow on I-80, like in recent days).

  • Haley and DeSantis' suburban blitzes also have focused on Altoona and Waukee in the Des Moines area, and Coralville, about a half-hour south of Cedar Rapids.

Former President Trump, who's built a big lead in polls while spending much less time in Iowa than his opponents, has stepped up his appearances in the closing days.

  • Sunday he held a rally south of Des Moines in Indianola, and passed out pizzas to first responders in Waukee, just west of the capital city.

Zoom in: Ankeny, the largest suburb in the fast-growing Des Moines area, goes back and forth in its political leanings. In 2021, the suburb's voters elected a conservative school board whose members had campaigned on no masks in schools and on giving parents more control of students' education.

  • That flipped last year, when four candidates promoted by progressives were elected. They campaigned on equity and supporting LGBTQ students.

The intrigue: Matt Smith, 57, of Ankeny, said he didn’t decide between DeSantis and Haley until last week, when he watched the CNN debate between the two and preferred DeSantis' performance.

  • He said he picked the Florida governor because he believes he's "the best one that can beat Trump."
  • Smith, who calls himself a Republican "never Trumper," said he wrote in a different candidate in 2016 and reluctantly voted for Trump in 2020.

The big picture: In Iowa and beyond, suburban voters generally are more likely to be college-educated, more affluent and more likely to live in moderate battleground precincts than rural voters who, in Iowa, have largely favored Trump.

  • Many of Iowa's suburbs "have a hot and cold relationship with Trump," Iowa GOP strategist David Kochel told Axios, acknowledging some suburban voters' dissatisfaction with the former president.

Between the lines: Haley's emphasis on Iowa's suburbs has focused particularly on counties that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won in the 2016 presidential caucuses. The former UN ambassador is hoping to find support from moderate Republicans.

  • DeSantis is competing with Trump for rural evangelical voters and often has leaned on his wife, Casey DeSantis, and Iowa's popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, to make his pitch to suburban voters.
  • Casey DeSantis last summer launched her “Mamas for DeSantis” movement in Iowa, focused on parental rights in children's education.

At an appearance in Ankeny on Sunday, Reynolds and Ron DeSantis urged supporters to brave the biting cold weather Monday night to vote in the caucuses.

  • "If you're willing to brave the elements for a few hours tomorrow night and you go out and caucus for me, I will be fighting for you for the next eight years as the next president of the United States," DeSantis said.

What they're saying: "Suburban voters are totally up for grabs," said U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), who lives in Marion, a suburb of Cedar Rapids. Hinson hasn't endorsed anyone in the presidential race.

  • "The issues that are important to suburban voters are no different than the rest of the state, but (are) amplified on safety and security," Hinson said. Among them: fentanyl and border security.

Iowa Republican Party chair Jeff Kaufman said the GOP is focused on Iowa's suburbs partly because Republicans believe they've locked down most of the state rural communities.

  • "We've cleaned house in every rural area," Kaufman said. "The next logical step is to expand the base in those suburban areas, and the way to do that is outreach into the suburbs."
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