When Kim Reynolds, the Republican governor of Iowa, stopped by a donor retreat Florida Governor Ron DeSantis held last year, no one paid much attention.
When she sat down earlier this year with Mr. DeSantis on stage, at another donor gathering across the street from Donald J. Trump’s residence, people started to take notice. When she glowered with Mr. DeSantis in not one, not two, but all three of her first visits to her state this year, her eyebrows raised. And when Ms. Reynolds appeared Thursday along with Casey DeSantis, the governor’s wife, alarms were blaring inside Trump’s headquarters.
Ms. Reynolds said — even privately, to Mr. Trump — this she doesn’t plan to formally endorse a candidate in the presidential race, in keeping with a tradition of the Iowa governor staying on the sidelines, maintaining a level playing field for the GOP’s first nomination contest. But through her words and her actions, Ms. Reynolds appears to be softening the ground in Iowa for Mr. DeSantis, appearing to be trying to create an opening for him to confront Mr. Trump.
For Mr. DeSantis, Iowa is where his allies recognize he must first halt Mr. Trump’s momentum to prevent him from steaming his way to a third consecutive GOP nomination. For Mr. Trump, it’s where he hopes to shut down his challengers’ nominations and win where he didn’t win in 2016.
And there is no politician in Iowa with greater influence than Ms. Reynolds, 63, who has overseen her party’s growing state legislative majorities with an approval rating among Republicans close to 90 percent. Republicans say it can draw attention and shape the landscape for the caucuses, which were officially set for January 15 on Saturday. Andven without making a formal approval.
Ms. Reynolds appeared alongside other candidates — including Mr. Trump, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott — but the warmth of her embrace of Mr. DeSantis became apparent. He’s been the subject of internal Trump campaign discussions — it hasn’t escaped their notice that one of his senior policy advisers, Ryan Koopmans, is also a top adviser to DeSantis’ super PAC — and even public yells from the former president.
« I hate to say it, without me, you know, he wouldn’t have won, you know that, right? » Mr. Trump said of Ms. Reynolds when she campaigned in Iowa in June.
The Republican crowd, in particular, didn’t applaud that jarring remark, which came just months after Ms. Reynolds rushed to re-election, carrying 95 of the state’s 99 counties. But the statement spoke to the former president’s self-centered worldview: that it was his appointment of his predecessor, Terry Branstad, as his ambassador to China that paved the way for Ms. Reynolds, then Mr. Branstad’s lieutenant governor, to accept the highest office of the state.
Ms. Reynolds is said to have grown tired of Mr. Trump, and reacted with disbelief to his comment that she owed him her governorship, according to people familiar with her thinking and response. However, she sided with Mr. Trump after his most recent indictment, lashing out at the Biden administration and saying he was a « sad day for America.”
The two have a shared history: Ms. Reynolds narrowly won a full term in 2018 with just 50.3% of the vote after Mr. Trump held a rally on her behalf, hailing her as « someone who has become a real star in the Republican party ». Party. » More recently, however, Trump has privately complained about Ms. Reynolds and other prominent Republicans, who he believes owe him their support because of her past support.
Prior to Mr. Trump’s latest visit to Iowa on Friday, a behind-the-scenes standoff raged for days over whether Ms. Reynolds would join him. Ms Reynolds said she will make an effort to appear with anyone who invites her, but an aide said she was not actually invited. The Trump team sees it as a permanent invitation. In the end, she didn’t participate.
The relationship with Mr. DeSantis, who privately courted Mrs. Reynolds for many months, was startlingly different.
He calls her Kim.
She calls him Ron.
They joke with a degree of familiarity and friendship that Mr. DeSantis rarely displays with other politicians. People who know them say they bonded during the coronavirus pandemic, as two governors who insisted on opening up their states despite warnings from some public health officials. They sat down for a private dinner in March, during his first visit to Iowa this year, according to two people briefed on the meal, and in 2022, Mr. DeSantis called Ms. Reynolds to offer his encouragement ahead of his response on the status of the Union.
When Mr. DeSantis was asked by a local television interviewer during his first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate if he would consider Ms. Reynolds for a potential cabinet post, offered a surprisingly effusive responseindicative of something even nobler: « I mean, I think Kim could be considered for anything a president would choose. »
Sometimes she looked like a running mate.
Appearing with Mr. DeSantis on three of his four visits to Iowa this year, and now with his wife as well, Ms. Reynolds extolled Florida’s successes under her leadership and linked her state’s successes to Iowa’s . The two lavish compliments to each other and their talking points echo in perfect harmony.
He says Florida is « the Iowa of the Southeast ». He says Iowa is « the Florida of the North ».
In his introduction at his launch event, he specifically praised Mr. DeSantis for signing a six-week abortion ban, which Mr. Trump criticized.
“He proudly signed into law a law making it illegal to stop a child’s heart beating — the same heartbeat bill I was proud to sign,” he said of Mr. DeSantis.
Some Iowa Republicans have said that Ms. Reynolds is simply a gracious host.
« He’s very popular, but I don’t think he’s making any favorites, » said Steve Scheffler, a member of the state’s Republican National Committee and chairman of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. « People read too much into this. »
But Trump’s advisers chuckled privately about the fact that he had neutrality in name only. « It’s neutral in quotation marks, » said a person close to Mr. Trump, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the team’s thinking, which is that Ms. Reynolds will do anything she can to help Mr. DeSantis short of backing him.
The Washington bureau chief for Breitbart News, Matthew Boyle, who is known for his close relationship with the former president, conspicuously left Ms. Reynolds out of his recent list of the 14 Republicans Trump could choose as his candidate for the race in 2024.
Mr. Trump has some well-placed allies in Iowa — the state party chairman’s son, who is in the legislature, is among his paid advisers — and he’s looking for more. In his June visit to the state, he invited a small group of prominent Republican officials whose endorsements are still up for grabs to dinner at a steakhouse in downtown Des Moines, including the state attorney general, according to people who attended the meal.
In an interview, Mr. Branstad, the former governor of Iowa, described the Trump-Reynolds relationship as « cordial, » praised Ms. Reynolds as a popular and effective governor, and said her formal neutrality was good for all Iowa people. He urged the former president to get over her irritation.
« Trump has to get over it, » Mr. Branstad said. “He Must overcome jealousy and resentment and focus on the future. You win elections by focusing on the future and not on the past. »
There have been no recent independent polls in Iowa. In national polls, Trump topped DeSantis by a wide margin.
Ms. Reynolds isn’t just the governor of Iowa: She also chairs the Republican Governors Association, the national campaign arm for Republicans seeking governors. Both of her elected GOP counterparts leading the Senate and House campaign have already backed Mr. Trump.
Yet, like other prominent Iowa elected officials, Ms. Reynolds he clarified that its primary goal is to ensure Iowa maintains its « first in the nation » status. At a college-football game last fall in Iowa, Ms. Reynolds was in a VIP box mingling with members of the state’s congressional delegation as they discussed the importance of remaining « neutral » to protect Iowa’s enviable position tops the Republican voting calendar, according to one person in the conversation (Democrats took the top spot away from the state in 2024).
« We won’t get involved in campaigning, because we want everyone to feel welcome in Iowa, » Senator Chuck Grassley, the 89-year-old Republican statesman, said in an interview. “And if the governor were to support someone, it could discourage other people from coming. Likewise for me.
But there is some frustration bubbling with Mr. Trump within the delegation.
Last month, Trump skipped the « Roast and Ride » event hosted by Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa. Her campaign had expressed interest in sending videotaped remarks and Ms Ernst’s operation therefore rented large screens for the purpose of showing them, but never sent a video, leaving Ms Ernst’s team without a recording and the cost of the equipment to be covered, according to five people briefed on the incident.
Ernst’s team had planned to use the chance to win a signed motorcycle helmet from all the Republican candidates as a bait to sell tickets to the « Roast and Ride ». They mailed the helmet to Mr. Trump, who returned it later than expected and had the numbers “45” and “47” added, signaling he would be the 47th president, a role everyone else is also running for, according to two people with knowledge of the episode Never used a helmet.
In March of this year, Ms. Reynolds introduced Mr. Trump at an event. In a private meeting during the same trip, Ms. Reynolds stressed to Mr. Trump that her goal was to keep Iowa’s spot as the nation’s top state on the campaign calendar, according to a person familiar with what happened but that he was not authorized to discuss it publicly. Mr. Trump responded by telling her that he was the one who protected the position of leader of the caucuses, as president. (The Iowa caucuses have been in the nomination process since the 1970s.)
At their joint event on Thursday, Ms. Reynolds and Ms. DeSantis joked on stage and even high-fived each other.
« I’m a woman on a mission, » Ms. Reynolds said at one point, « and I think you’re a woman on a mission, too. »
Lisa Leer contributed report.