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Gov. Reynolds endorses DeSantis, shaking up Iowa two months before caucuses

<i>Rachel Mummey/Reuters</i><br/>Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds wave as Reynolds endorses DeSantis for president at a rally in Des Moines on November 6.
Rachel Mummey/Reuters
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds wave as Reynolds endorses DeSantis for president at a rally in Des Moines on November 6.

By Steve Contorno, Kit Maher and Jeff Zeleny, CNN

Des Moines (CNN) — Breaking from the tradition of the first-in-the-nation caucuses, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president, sending a clear message to Republicans looking for an alternative to former President Donald Trump that the time to act has arrived.

As people waved “Reynolds for DeSantis” signs, the Iowa governor said the country needs “someone who calls out our moral decline for what it is, who looks to the future and not the past, someone who, most importantly, can win.”

“That person is Ron DeSantis. And that’s why I am so proud to stand here tonight and give him my full support and endorsement for president of the United States of America,” Reynolds said.

In putting her thumb on the scale for DeSantis, Reynolds is lining up behind a like-minded executive who has also successfully enacted a strikingly conservative agenda. Her endorsement will test the power of her political brand in her home state. Across the country, Republican leaders have experienced limited success convincing conservative voters to move on from Trump.

Reynolds wasted little time going after Trump, dinging his response to Covid-19 and saying DeSantis “won’t get distracted” and “will stay disciplined,” a clear rebuke of the former president, who has publicly assailed her for months.

“We need someone who will fight for you, who puts this country first and not himself,” she said.

DeSantis hugged Reynolds as he took the stage and the two stood together as the crowd cheered. DeSantis then delivered familiar remarks to anyone who has heard him in all corners of Iowa.

“I don’t care what they say about me. I will take the arrows. I will take all the criticism. I’ll take the smears,” DeSantis said. “I’ll take the hits, because, ultimately, it’s not about me. It’s about you, and I will fight for you.”

Whether Reynolds can rally Republicans behind DeSantis remains to be seen, but her endorsement comes at a critical juncture for the Florida governor, whose campaign has staked its future to a strong showing in Iowa. Dozens of appearances in the state by DeSantis and millions spent on advertising and door-knocking here by a supportive super PAC have yet to meaningfully move Iowa Republicans. He remains well behind Trump, the race’s front-runner, and one respected pollster, the Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll, recently put him neck-and-neck with former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for second place.

But Reynolds’ support allows DeSantis to enter November and the two-month countdown to the Iowa caucuses with some wind at his back, while complicating Haley’s efforts to make a late push in the Hawkeye State. Reynolds has built up support among Republicans across the state, including in suburban areas and with women – two demographics Haley has targeted to build a coalition of voters looking to move on from Trump.

The DeSantis camp is betting that most caucusgoers are still considering the field and that Reynolds can be an influential voice when they make up their mind. Indeed, while the Des Moines Register/NBC News poll found enthusiasm to vote for Trump remained high among his supporters, 67% of those polled say they are considering DeSantis, matching Trump.

“As governor, I felt like it was my responsibility to provide all of the candidates a platform to share their message and vision with Iowans and help put their best foot forward,” Reynolds said. “But I also believe that as a mom, and as a grandma, and as an American, I could not and cannot sit on the sidelines any longer.”

Ahead of the event, Mason Chase, a voter from Altoona, Iowa, said, “I think DeSantis has all the strengths of Trump, minus the weaknesses.”

“I like his family values. I like his vision for the country. I also appreciate he’s not in a bunch of legal trouble and just not a bombastic character,” Chase told CNN.

Reynolds will immediately join DeSantis on the campaign trail Tuesday in Davenport, Iowa. She is expected to join DeSantis “a lot” in Iowa events, a source familiar with the campaign’s planning said, and she may headline events promoting him on her own.

Reynolds, 64, is one of Iowa’s most popular Republican officials. She won reelection last year by 19 percentage points. Her endorsement of DeSantis will test that popularity, particularly in the face of a fusillade of attacks from Trump.

“She is doing her part and trying to show Republicans that it’s time to turn the page,” a Republican friend of Reynolds’ told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations. “She didn’t want to have any regrets for remaining silent.”

Reynolds, who also serves as chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association, has told several friends and advisers that she is unafraid of Trump’s criticism. Her decision to weigh in on the Republican primary – at odds with the traditions of recent Iowa governors – underscores the degree to which she is trying to keep Trump from becoming the GOP nominee.

She has offered advice and guidance to DeSantis – and other candidates – for months, but aides said she always had the closest relationship with the Florida governor. The two spoke frequently as they navigated the coronavirus pandemic, a period that one Reynolds aide said “forged a bond” between the two.

DeSantis, meanwhile, brought Reynolds into the fold early. Before he was even a presidential candidate, the two shared a stage as he toured Iowa to promote his second book. He cheered on her successful efforts to pass a six-week abortion ban that mirrored one he signed in Florida and defended her in July when Trump lashed out at Reynolds for not returning the favor after he endorsed her gubernatorial bid in 2018.

“I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won,” Trump said on social media at the time. “Now, she wants to remain ‘NEUTRAL.’ I don’t invite her to events!”

DeSantis and Reynolds were already close before those midsummer attacks from Trump. But after Trump lashed out, DeSantis’ campaign became increasingly hopeful that Reynolds could break from tradition and make an endorsement. Talks between the two candidates escalated from there.

“She could sit this out, she could sit on the sidelines, and she could opine, and she could not put herself into the arena. But as you all well know, that is not Gov. Kim Reynolds,” DeSantis’ wife, Casey DeSantis, said in introducing the Iowa leader.

Reynolds did not make the endorsement with national ambitions in mind, two people close to her told CNN, but rather out of a firm belief that Republicans should move beyond Trump. It’s an open question whether other Iowa elected officials, particularly Sen. Joni Ernst, will follow her lead. One aide said Monday Ernst has no immediate plans to weigh in.

In a series of posts on his social media platform, Truth Social, Trump repeatedly lashed out at Reynolds as “disloyal.” He predicted Reynolds’ endorsement “will be the end of her political career in that MAGA would never support her again.”

But Jeff Angelo, a conservative radio host in Iowa, didn’t foresee future trouble for Reynolds.

“My listeners tell me they can separate their support for Trump and their support for Reynolds. Her political agenda in Iowa is so popular,” he told CNN, and she is so well-liked “that any political damage to her is minimal. I don’t think every politician can say that, but she can.”

The endorsement, however, has drawn criticism from those who expect governors to remain neutral ambassadors of the Iowa caucuses.

“Why would any candidates then come to Iowa in the future, when you have a person of that stature, position endorsing one of the candidates before caucus?” Bernie Hayes, chairman of the Linn County Republican Party, told CNN.

“I’m a bit in disbelief or denial, if you want to call it that,” he added.

State Sen. Amy Sinclair, who has also backed DeSantis, countered that Reynolds remained neutral for much of the race and that Trump was first to assign her a side in the nominating fight.

“Let’s just be honest: She didn’t pick this fight,” Sinclair said. “She did not start that nonsense and the bickering that’s happening in the background.”

Amy Meyer, a DeSantis supporter from Urbandale, Iowa, who attended Monday’s event, said, “Trump really did fall on his face when he criticized our governor the way that he did quite some time ago.”

“And I think that that will make it so that people are like, ‘Yeah, he doesn’t know what “Iowa nice” is.’”

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