Those social conservatives had won big legislative margins in the 2022 midterms that had gone against Republicans in other states, and they had used their majority to pass a “fetal heartbeat” bill, outlawing most abortions after around six weeks, which in effect comes close to an outright ban. DeSantis had signed a nearly identical bill in Florida; Trump has criticized these measures as too extreme, saying they would backfire on Republicans. So the true believers in Iowa had a substantive reason to turn away from the former President, too.
It was a highly self-selecting crowd at the Thunderdome—people willing to spend a couple of hours of their Saturday at a DeSantis campaign event—but, as I walked around chatting, I did get the impression that the fetal-heartbeat contretemps had given some Trump-skeptical conservatives something to point to, evidence that the former President really wasn’t on their side. I spent a few minutes talking with Jon Dunwell, an evangelical minister who, in 2021, won a state House seat that had been held by Democrats for decades. Dunwell, who, once in office, had sponsored the heartbeat bill, isn’t as smooth as Vander Plaats, but he has an intensity of purpose that I recognized from the Bush-era religious right, too. When Trump had turned against the fetal-heartbeat bills, Dunwell said, “I was shocked. I mean, my jaw dropped. I don’t get it. I look at some of my fellow-legislators—there are a few who support Trump who are also pro-life—and I just don’t get it.” He had endorsed DeSantis. Of Trump, he said, “If he’s willing to compromise on something as important as life, what else is he willing to compromise on?”
The point of the Jasper County event had been to commemorate DeSantis’s completing “the full Grassley,” as everyone seemed to have agreed to call it, in honor of the ninety-year-old Iowa senator Chuck Grassley, who has made it his practice to visit every single county each year. People said the phrase “the full Grassley” so much that you figured an intern backstage had organized a drinking game. Highlighting this made sense from several points of view, including character: whatever else you might think of Ron DeSantis, he does not lack doggedness. The crowd was healthy—maybe two hundred people—but more notably it was mobbed with press, who kept assertively asking voters questions they didn’t really know the answer to, namely how they thought DeSantis could beat Trump.
The setting also seemed to beckon a quality that DeSantis does very much lack, which is folksiness. The plan seemed to be that the candidate would reminisce about all the charming things he had seen on the campaign trail, and all the personal connections he’d made. Onstage, DeSantis kept consulting a list of such visits, but he was short on detail and emotion, making it sound like he was narrating someone else’s scrapbook, or possibly just reciting driving directions. “When we were in Audubon County, my kids and Casey and me went to this big large bull statue, which I think is the largest bull statue in the entire world, and we got to get some good pictures with that, which was a lot of fun,” DeSantis said. “Casey, me, and the kids, when we visited Sac County, we saw the world’s largest popcorn ball. Quite a sight.” On it went. “We were in Chickasaw County . . .”