Iowa may be the most important state on Donald J. Trump’s early 2024 political calendar, but he hasn’t been making many friends there lately.
He lashed out at Iowa’s popular Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, and then his campaign informed one of the state’s politically influential evangelical leaders, Bob Vander Plaats, that the former president would skip a gathering of presidential candidates this week in Des Moines.
The back-to-back moves on Monday — which the campaign of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida labeled a “snub of Iowa conservatives” in an email on Tuesday — show the extent to which Mr. Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, acts as if he is immune to traditional political pitfalls while he is also under indictment and his rivals are seeking to capitalize on some voters’ fatigue with his antics.
“With Trump’s personality, I feel he thinks he owns Iowa,” said Steve Boender, a board member for the Family Leader, the conservative Christian group organizing the event on Friday that Mr. Trump is skipping. “And I’m not sure he does.”
“I think Trump’s negativity is hurting things a little bit,” added Mr. Boender, who remains unaligned for 2024.
It is not surprising that Mr. Trump will skip the Family Leader gathering. He has generally avoided these “cattle call” events, which feature all the candidates, as advisers see such settings as lowering him to the level of his far-behind opponents. In addition, Mr. Vander Plaats has made no secret of his desire to move past Mr. Trump, including traveling to Tallahassee to have lunch with Mr. DeSantis at the governor’s mansion.
“I think there’s no doubt, most likely, I will not endorse him,” Mr. Vander Plaats said of Mr. Trump. “So he believes if he shows up and I don’t endorse him that will make him look weak.”
But as a result, he said, Mr. Trump was missing out on speaking to an estimated audience of 2,000, and “many of those people still love him dearly.”
Over the weekend, The New York Times reported on the various ways Ms. Reynolds has appeared cozy with Mr. DeSantis, to the growing frustration of Mr. Trump, who appointed her predecessor to an ambassadorship. He wants credit for her ascent and career; she won re-election in a landslide last year. He erupted in public on Monday.
“I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won,” Mr. Trump wrote on Truth Social, referring to her 2018 race. “Now, she wants to remain ‘NEUTRAL.’ I don’t invite her to events!”
Ms. Reynolds’s office declined to comment. Mr. DeSantis quickly came to her defense on Twitter, saying she is “a strong leader who knows how to ignore the chirping and get it done.”
Mr. Trump’s remark spurred some backlash from Iowans who support Ms. Reynolds, including Cody Hoefert, who served as co-chair of the Iowa Republican Party from 2014 to 2021.
“It was a continuation of a series of unforced errors by the former president,” Mr. Hoefert said, also citing Mr. Trump’s comments opposing a six-week abortion ban.
Ms. Reynolds has called the Iowa Legislature into a special session this week to pass a six-week ban after a previous effort was blocked by the state’s top court. Mr. Trump has said so strict a ban — when many women don’t even know they are pregnant — is “too harsh.”
Mr. Hoefert said his break with Mr. Trump — during whose presidency he remained a loyal party officer — was not because of other allegiances.
“This was not, ‘I’m going to attack Trump because I’m supporting X candidate,’” he said. “It’s because I’m tired of the former president making everything about himself and attacking his friends and potential supporters and other Republicans who are doing great conservative things over what seems like a personal vendetta.”
Republicans opposed to Mr. Trump’s leading the party again predicted that the attacks would play poorly with voters.
“He’s shown his penchant for self-destructive behavior, and it’s one of those things that I think voters notice,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican operative from Iowa who has advised Ms. Reynolds. “Kim Reynolds is very popular in Iowa. She hasn’t attacked Trump. She won’t — she’s told everyone she’ll go to their events, and the fact that he has such an ego he assumes everyone has to endorse him. That’s not going to happen in these early states.”
Brett Barker, the chair of the Story County Republican Party in Iowa, saw it as a needless battle. “I don’t think it’s helpful to pick fights with sitting governors who are really popular in their home states,” he said, before adding: “I don’t know how harmful it’s going to be in the big picture.”
A person close to Mr. Trump who was not authorized to speak publicly acknowledged that his attack on Ms. Reynolds was not part of a scripted plan, but questioned whether it would actually erode his standing, despite predictions of political fallout. His team believes he has enough support among Iowans to counteract elected officials’ views.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, cited a “scheduling conflict” as his reason for missing the Family Leadership Summit, and noted that Mr. Trump would be back in Iowa next week.
“The president will be in Florida this weekend headlining the premier national young voter conference with Turning Point Action conference while DeSantis is nowhere to be found,” Mr. Cheung said of an event expected to draw a more pro-Trump crowd.
The Family Leader event — which is expected to feature Mr. DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Vivek Ramaswamy, the former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas — is the second major conservative gathering in two months that Mr. Trump is bypassing.
Mr. Vander Plaats said that “half the battle” in Iowa was showing up, and that Mr. Trump had fallen short so far on that score.
“Iowa is tailor-made for him to get beat here,” he said. “And to the contrary, if he wins here, I’m not sure there’s any way to stop him from being the nominee.”