Iowa’s Governor Bet on DeSantis. Voters Aren’t Thrilled.

Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa broke with tradition and with former President Donald J. Trump in November when she endorsed Ron DeSantis for president in her state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, a move that surprised political observers and Iowa voters alike.

And it has scarcely seemed to moved the needle: Mr. Trump remains the runaway favorite of prospective caucusgoers in the polls. The question now is whether Ms. Reynolds, who was popular with Republicans in the state before siding with Mr. DeSantis, will pay a price with her own voters when the presidential primary circus moves on from Iowa next week.

Stumping for Mr. DeSantis across the state, she has upset Republican county officials and those who count themselves among the former president’s fiercest supporters.

“I think the governor will spend a lot of time rebuilding her relationships with a lot of people in the state this next legislative session,” said Gary Leffler, a Trump supporter who is also a friend of Ms. Reynolds and a former volunteer for her campaigns for governor.

He said he still trusted and respected Ms. Reynolds, but for many Trump supporters, “it’s a major ding in the relationship with her.”

Interviews with nearly 20 Iowa voters and local Republican officials indicated while she is still well-liked, if not beloved, in the state, there was clear unhappiness with her DeSantis endorsement. Many of those same voters as well as political strategists suggested that it was unlikely to have a lasting negative effect because her conservative policies are so popular. Still, the wild card is Mr. Trump, who branded her as disloyal after her announcement in November and has backed challenges to Republican elected officials who cross him. He has insulted her at rallies and attacked her in advertisements. In a video his campaign shared on X on Tuesday, he called her “the least popular governor in the country.”

“When President Trump has been nothing but loyal, only for others to return the favor by being disloyal, voters can see right through it,” Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, said. “People won’t forget.”

Ms. Reynolds’s office declined to comment for this article. On Tuesday evening, she gave her annual Condition of the State address to the Legislature, where she was warmly received with standing ovations from lawmakers. She mostly stuck to the minutiae of state government, but briefly alluded to the impending caucuses.

“Iowa is on the rise, and as the world descends on our state over this next week, they’re going to see it,” she said.

The rupture between Mr. Trump and Ms. Reynolds — a politician whose star had been steadily on the rise within the party and who is serving her second full term as governor — appeared unlikely just a few years ago.

As the state’s lieutenant governor, she was elevated to Iowa’s top job in 2017 when Mr. Trump tapped Gov. Terry Branstad to serve as his ambassador to China. In 2018, Ms. Reynolds won a full term as governor. Mr. Trump endorsed her before the election, and she squeaked by, winning by 2.8 percentage points. Ms. Reynolds in turn was an ardent supporter of Mr. Trump, appearing alongside him in Washington and, after his 2020 loss, condemning the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol but continuing to indulge his debunked claims of widespread fraud that undermined trust in the outcome.

But Ms. Reynolds and Mr. DeSantis became friends more recently. They have said they grew close during the coronavirus pandemic, when Mr. DeSantis called Ms. Reynolds to discuss the blowback they had received for reopening schools earlier than many other states. The governors have pursued similar ultraconservative policies, and their personal lives have intersected in ways that appear to have helped reinforce their bond. Mr. DeSantis’s wife, Casey DeSantis, a breast cancer survivor, visited the Reynolds family in October after Ms. Reynolds’s husband Kevin was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“This is the only guy that’s gone to all 99 counties,” Ms. Reynolds said last month at a crowded campaign event in Bettendorf, Iowa, heaping praise on Mr. DeSantis while sitting next to him and Ms. DeSantis as 150 attendees looked on. “He’s put the work in, and the time, and committed to Iowans.”

As the Republican primary got underway last year, she said she would remain neutral, which governors have largely done since 1996, despite her public chumminess with Mr. DeSantis. But Mr. Trump may have pushed Ms. Reynolds even further into Mr. DeSantis’s camp in July, when he attacked her for her initial pledge to stay out of the Republican primary.

“I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won. Now, she wants to remain ‘NEUTRAL,’” he wrote on his social media site, Truth Social.

Ms. Reynolds hit back, and stepped up her public appearances alongside Mr. DeSantis in the summer and fall before making her endorsement.

The Republican chairs of the state’s 99 counties had also promised to remain neutral — though some have advocated publicly for various candidates, particularly Mr. Trump. Some said they were upset at Ms. Reynolds for going back on her own pledge to stay out of the race, though many declined to speak to The New York Times on the record for fear of damaging their relationship with the governor.

“I am disappointed that Governor Reynolds made an endorsement of anyone,” said Roger Helmrichs, the chair of the Delaware County Republicans in eastern Iowa.

Mr. Helmrichs said he was supporting Ms. Haley but had avoided making a public endorsement. He said Ms. Reynolds had put herself in an uncomfortable position if Mr. Trump ended up winning the nomination.

“How do you put the cat back in the bag and say, ‘Yep, now I’ll support this candidate?’” Mr. Helmrichs asked. “I think it’s a bit awkward for a public official.”

Although there is an outside chance the rift with Mr. Trump could evolve into a significant problem for Ms. Reynolds, many voters and strategists felt it was more likely to peter out over time.

“Republicans across the state of Iowa, the vast majority still love Governor Reynolds,” said Jimmy Centers, a political strategist who used to work for the governor.

Indeed, some voters greeted her endorsement with enthusiasm. At a DeSantis rally last month in Newton, Cheryl Septer, 62, said Ms. Reynolds’s endorsement was “making me lean more toward DeSantis.”

Others said they disagreed with her choice but still respected her.

“We can work through it as a state,” Kurt Wieland, 61, said at a Trump rally in Coralville. “She has a right as a citizen to support who she wants.”

Ultimately, it may not make a difference. Ms. Reynolds is not term-limited, and she is still more than two years away from her next election, if she chooses to run again. Iowans may well have forgotten the matter altogether by the 2026 governor’s race.

“We always say the old ‘24 hours is a lifetime in politics,’” said Eric Woolson, a veteran political strategist who managed the former presidential candidate Doug Burgum’s Iowa campaign, suggesting voters will have moved on by then. “But I know a lot of activists, a lot of political professionals have very long memories and hold grudges.”

The outstanding question, Mr. Woolson said, was whether a Trump-aligned Republican might use this moment as a springboard to mount a primary challenge in the next election.

“That’s one of those things that we’re going to have to wait and see,” he said.

Nicholas Nehamas and Michael Gold contributed reporting.



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