DeSantis Hits Rough Patch After Weak Finish In Iowa Caucuses

The Florida governor insists he has a path ahead in the race, but news from his political orbit since the first nominating contest suggests otherwise.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens to a voter's question during a rally on Tuesday in Greenville, South Carolina.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens to a voter's question during a rally on Tuesday in Greenville, South Carolina.
Jeffrey Collins via Associated Press

Things haven’t been going well for Ron DeSantis since his distant second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, even though the Florida governor argued after his loss Monday that he has a path forward in the GOP primary.

First, on Wednesday, Steve Cortes, the former spokesperson for Never Back Down, the super PAC backing the Florida governor’s presidential candidacy, came out behind Donald Trump for president, calling on the Republican Party and the rest of the field to “read the room” and “coalesce and unite behind the clear preference of the GOP grassroots.”

Cortes, who was also an advisor to Trump, wrote in a Real Clear Politics op-ed: “I believed that Republican voters were ready for a new post-Trump chapter of the America First movement. I now believe I was wrong.”

Cortes argued this “flashpoint in history,” when the country is confronting struggles with the economy, illegal immigration and its education system, calls for “political unity among conservatives” behind Trump in order to defeat Joe Biden in November.

Critics, including Trump allies, accused Cortes of playing both sides, but his comments underscore the perceived inevitability of Trump’s nomination after he finished with 51% of the vote in Monday’s caucuses — which represent an incredibly small sample size of the GOP electorate. DeSantis finished in a distant second with 21% of the vote, while former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley came in third with 19%.

Also on Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Never Back Down was beginning an unspecified number of layoffs. The super PAC had made a huge bet on Iowa, investing the bulk of its resources on a massive field operation to mobilize voters.

Never Back Down had been roiled by internal divisions in the run up to the first votes being cast, culminating in the resignation of chief political strategist Jeff Roe last month. The PAC isn’t legally allowed to coordinate with the official DeSantis campaign operation, but tows the line by organizing campaign events where the governor is featured as a “special guest.”

DeSantis insisted on Monday that his second-place finish in the caucuses was his ticket out of Iowa to the next stop on the nominating calendar, New Hampshire. “We got our ticket punched out of Iowa,” he told a group of supporters in brief remarks Monday night. “They threw everything but the kitchen sink at us.”

A poll of the New Hampshire race released today shows Trump earning 50% of the vote, with Haley in second at 34% and DeSantis in third at 5%. ABC canceled its New Hampshire debate scheduled for Thursday after Haley refused to do it without Trump — depriving DeSantis a final opportunity to reach a large swath of New Hampshire voters.

In Iowa, Trump’s momentum frustrated the supporters of other candidates, even though they would ultimately back Trump as the nominee given the choice between him and Biden.

“We’re not discouraged,” Janne Kapfer, a 45-year-old DeSantis supporter from Clive, Iowa, told HuffPost Monday, shortly after Trump was declared the winner. “I used to semi-support Trump, but his pro-life stance has shifted so much that I can’t anymore. So that’s the biggest problem with him. But people are very die-hard Trump.”

“The more they go after [Trump], the more his supporters just dig in, and it’s just baffling to me,” said Chris Cournoyer, an Iowa state senator and Haley backer. “If you really have your eye on the prize, we should be looking at the person that can win in November. And there’s just so much drama and just so many unknowns with [Trump].”

“If we end up with Biden and Trump as our two choices in November — with all the people in this country, that’s what our choices are?” Cournoyer said. “That’s crazy to me.”

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