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After a slow start to the campaign, Republicans begin courting Iowa voters

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 first presidential nominating states window for a variety of reasons, including its failed 2020 results. Republicans, however, are sticking to tradition.

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

The district’s parents are suing over a policy adopted last year that allows students to ask to use a noun or gender-affirming 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, an Iowa-based restaurant chain that is popular with Republicans visiting the state during the election campaign. Pence hasn’t stated that he’s running for president, but it’s common for politicians to start showing up in Iowa well before it’s made official.

As he spoke inside, more than fifty protesters stood along the street outside the restaurant with signs supporting LGBTQ youth.

“Is that all that the Republican Party stands for? Because that’s what it looks like these days,” said Hiawatha City Council member Aime Wichtendahl. Wichtendahl is thought to be the first trans person elected to office in Iowa. “Republican politicians just beat up trans kids to create division and get grassroots votes and it’s absolutely disgusting.”

“We will stand up for the rights of parents and children of Iowa and America,” Pence said to applause from the small group of supporters gathered in the restaurant’s event room.

Iowa has swung to the right for the past decade

The Iowa caucuses are famously the first in the nation to test primary candidates and that still holds true for Republicans. Former President Donald Trump’s announcement last year that he was doing another run seemed to have a chilling effect on the race. But politicians like Pence are flying in here to create their own monotonous speeches and get in front of potential voters.

Iowa U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson stressed that Democrats will not start in Iowa when she introduced Pence.

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

Republicans will answer these questions in a state that has marched to the right for the past decade.

Voters here chose Barack Obama twice and then turned around and supported 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 prominent statewide Democratic offices went red.

Trump’s chilling effect on the race may be heating up

In true Iowa tradition, it’s not just the top Republican officials — current or former — who flock to Hawkeye state.

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

But the former president still looms large over the Republican competition which is still in its early stages.

“I would like [Trump] to support someone,” Republican voter Margaret Saddoris told NPR when asked about former President Trump at a lakeside event in Ankeny, Iowa. “I think there is too much drama there.”

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

He likes Trump and would also like to see Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis enter the race.

“I think both would do a good job,” Whipple said. “Some people seem, even if they support Trump, they’re just thinking maybe it’s time to move on.”

Former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was also in attendance at the Lake event. He is not picking any favorites in the primaries even though he was US ambassador to China under Trump.

“I want everyone to feel welcome,” said Branstad, who is the longest-serving governor in US history. “I want to do my part to encourage them to come early and often … and let Iowa voters decide who they think is the best and strongest candidate.”

One caucus is not like another

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

For example, in January of 2015, there was a big day of Republican speeches. Iowans heard from Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also spoke. At the time, Donald Trump was there and no one seemed to really take him seriously.

But voters were taking Trump seriously.

As the caucus campaign continued through that year and into 2016, sentiment among other candidates in the Republican camp seemed to center around who would be the candidate to eliminate Trump.

And in language that will recall the most recent US election, when Cruz won the caucus, Trump called a foul and declared the vote invalid. It was not like this. But he continued to sift through the Republican field, eventually becoming the candidate and winning the presidential election.

Trump did not visit Iowa this time, despite notably declaring his candidacy in early November of 2022.

Iowa still matters, at least to Republicans, but it was certainly off to a slower start than in 2016 or by Democrats in 2020.

Some candidates make it official while others enjoy Iowa…for now

Meanwhile, at Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids, the press asked Pence to comment on former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently announcing her candidacy for president.

“Ambassador Nikki Haley has done a great job in our administration, and she may soon have more company in the race for president,” Pence said with a smile. “I promise the people here in Iowa and all of you that I will keep you updated.”

It’s the kind of wink-wink comment that highlights 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, wooing voters. His fellow South Carolina Senator Tim Scott is also in Iowa this week.

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