U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton greets veterans attending a campaign event for Iowa Republican congressional candidate Zach Nunn on July 6, 2022, in West Des Moines. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton spent his Wednesday afternoon at Jethro’s BBQ ‘n Bacon Bacon in West Des Moines. He didn’t come for the food: The Arkansas conservative came to help Iowa Sen. Zach Nunn launch his campaign’s veteran coalition, offering his support in the race against incumbent U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne.
It’s not the senator’s first visit to Iowa this year. It’s his eighth since 2019. And while Cotton said his visits to Iowa are to help elect Republicans in November, Iowa Republicans are well aware of why political figures flock to their state.
“So we have Senator Cotton, Tom and his, wife, Anna, come out and join us because there’s a lot of people here in Iowa who like your leadership,” Nunn said. “And oh, I like to think that people come here and support Kelly and me, but it just so happens that Iowa’s 3rd (District) happens to be on the pathway to a certain house somewhere down the road.”
Less than two years out from the next Iowa caucuses, Republican politicians are coming to campaign in support of GOP candidates as they feel out a potential presidential candidacy.
But it’s still early for candidates to officially throw their hat into the ring. Cotton said he was in Iowa because it holds important races for Republicans’ goal to win back the House and Senate, like electing Nunn and re-electing U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.
“This is a very critical election,” Cotton told reporters. “So I’m gonna keep my eyes on the election ahead of us and we’ll decide about future elections in the future.”
Republicans take first steps in Iowa
Cotton isn’t the only one making up his mind on running. Last week, Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley made her way around Iowa, joining Republican U.S. House candidates on the campaign trail and speaking at a private fundraiser for Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Haley, a former governor of South Carolina, has not officially entered the presidential race, but told reporters at an event supporting U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra that she plans to defend America in whatever role she can.
“If it looks like there’s a place for me next year, I’ve never lost a race,” Haley said, according to the Des Moines Register. “I’m not going to start now. I’ll put 1,000% in and I’ll finish it. If there’s not a place for me, I will fight for this country until my last breath.”
Some Republicans who ran for the 2016 presidential nomination are also making their way back to Iowa. U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have both made stops in the state after former President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020. Cruz, who won the 2016 Iowa caucuses, came in August 2021 to support U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson’s campaign, and promised America’s “revival is coming.”
Rubio also visited in August 2021. He said he is focused on his own re-election in Florida for 2022, but spoke about maintaining friendships in Iowa.
Trump looms large
But the 2024 Republican caucuses may not be a free-for-all like the Democratic caucuses were in 2020. Trump lost to President Joe Biden in 2020, but still holds major sway over both the Republican party and GOP voters.
Trump brought in a huge crowd at his Des Moines rally in October 2021, where he endorsed Grassley and reiterated his claims that he won the 2020 election.
But the former president has not officially said whether he plans to run again. A Democratic super PAC filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission in March, alleging he violated campaign finance laws by spending his PAC money on events without declaring his intent to run again as a presidential candidate.
“I mean, I know what I’m going to do, but we’re not supposed to be talking about it yet from the standpoint of campaign finance laws,” Trump told reporters in September, when asked about the next presidential campaign cycle.
Trump has a 53% approval rating in Iowa, according to an October 2021 Des Moines Register/Iowa Poll. But some Republicans say there’s enough room for other candidates to win the caucuses, should the former president run again.
Those other candidates may include Trump administration alumni. Besides Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has visited Iowa three times since the last presidential election, and talking about foreign policy and American security. In June, he launched ads in Iowa and South Carolina praising religious freedom wins in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Former Vice President Mike Pence is also visiting Iowa ahead of any 2024 announcements. His candidacy could draw ire of Trump supporters among the Republican base. But conservatives extended Pence a warm welcome in Carroll this April, where he spoke in support of re-electing Iowa Republicans and criticized Biden’s tenure as president.
Pence has faced backlash for his break with Trump on the validity of 2020 election results. But Pence still aligned himself with the former president on conservative victories from their tenure, like the many conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts. Pence said he hopes for more conservative wins in Iowa, and nationwide.
“The good news is, despite all the setbacks we’ve seen in the last year and a half, the Republican Party is fighting back all across America and all across Iowa,” Pence said.
The field is still open
While many Republicans have visited Iowa ahead of the November election, other conservative favorites have yet to stop in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Polling compiled by FiveThirtyEight shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis often comes in second behind Trump among voter rankings of potential candidates. DeSantis has yet to visit Iowa.
Chris Christie, former New Jersey governor and presidential candidate, has also stayed away from Iowa ahead of the midterms despite speculation of another presidential run. U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley and Ben Sasse are in the same boat.
Conservative politicians who are not on the national radar may also decide to enter the race in the coming year.
Brad Whitmore, a veteran who attended the Zach Nunn campaign event, said he thinks Cotton would be a good candidate for president. But he added, “Well, I think (Iowa Sen.) Joni Ernst is a possible candidate, too. She’d make a good president.”
— Kathie Obradovich contributed to this report.
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