GOP candidates compete for Iowans’ support at Sen. Joni Ernst’s ‘Roast and Ride’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shakes the hand of an attendee of U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” fundraiser at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines Saturday, June 3. Photo by Robin Opsahl | Iowa Capital Dispatch

Presidential candidates worked to balance promoting their ability to unify the country while highlighting their fight against the “woke” left while speaking to Iowans gathered Saturday for U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” fundraiser at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, took their children to get ice cream and sit up in a John Deere truck. Businessman Perry Johnson signed copies of his books and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott shook hands with those seated for lunch as event attendees waited for speeches to start.

Candidates set out to prove their retail politics prowess, speaking with voters and taking photos while competing to sign up Iowa Republicans to volunteer for their campaign and support them in the 2024 Iowa caucuses.

It’s Ernst’s eighth annual “Roast and Ride,” fundraiser, an event where she and supporters go on a motorcycle ride before gathering for a pork cookout. The event has been a notable stop on the Iowa caucus trail for Republicans since Ernst took office in 2015.

That reputation continued with seven announced Republican candidates and one likely incomer speaking at the 2023 fundraiser, which raised money for the Freedom Foundation, a Cedar Rapids veteran support organization.

There was one notable missing candidate from the gathering: former President Donald Trump. His campaign staff worked a booth alongside other campaigns at the event, and put fliers on attendees’ cars parked at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, but the former president did not make an appearance.

Trump was in Iowa earlier in the week, speaking with the Westside Conservative Club and holding a Fox News town hall Thursday.

Trump and DeSantis are the current frontrunners for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. While event attendeee Kathleen Jorgensen from Des Moines said she understands why Trump was not at a so-called “cattle call” event, she said he needs to make sure he avoids seeming “entitled” to the Republican nomination.

Jorgensen said she supported Trump as president, but that he needed to stay on the campaign trail to remain competitive. Iowans expect to hear from candidates directly and know where they stand on the issues, she said, and that still applies to Trump as he aims for the presidency again.

“Iowans don’t do that,” Jorgensen said. “I mean, no, (Trump) already ran unopposed once, and he didn’t win. So this time, he’s not going to run unopposed. … but we want as a country, we want debate, we want to see what it is, we don’t believe in entitlements. So I wish he was going to be here, and he better be on the debate stage, because if not — Iowans will not like that.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence was the only 2024 hopeful to join Ernst and the group of more than 200 bikers on the ride from Big Barn Harley Davidson to the fairgrounds. Before heading out, he spoke with reporters while seated on his motorcycle about his Iowa event Wednesday where he is expected to officially launch his 2024 presidential bid.

When asked about his plans to join the Republican presidential nomination field, Pence has long said he and his family are “reflecting” on how best to serve the country moving forward.

“We have a very clear sense of calling now and we thought Iowa would be the best place to make our intentions known,” Pence said.

Some voters questioned the upcoming entries into the presidential race, as Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum are expected to join the field. Bob Hamilton from Jefferson said he was “open minded” for incoming candidates, but that it’s already a crowded race.

“I think we’ll need to start whittling them down,” Hamilton said. “And it’ll happen here over the next six months.”

DeSantis speaks with voters, says he can deliver results

DeSantis, the highest-profile candidate to speak at the event, spent the time before the event with his family, signing a Bible handed to him by a man who thanked him for his fight against Disney and speaking with voters near his “Never Back Down” campaign bus. Casey DeSantis, his wife, wore a black leather jacket with “Where Woke Goes to Die” printed on the back in an outline of Florida.

In his speech, DeSantis asked Iowans to support his presidential campaign because he has proved he can deliver results.

The Florida governor brought up similarities between Florida and Iowa’s laws, from his and Gov. Kim Reynolds’ move to reopen schools and businesses, defying the “Faucian dystopia” during COVID-19 pandemic to more recent bans on LGBTQ+ subjects in classroom materials and instruction with younger students in schools.

DeSantis argued he does not make “idle promises,” and that he will bring about the changes he highlights on fighting “woke” ideology in schools and businesses to the White House if elected.

He pointed to his time in the governor’s office, where he and the Republican state legislature has passed measures including a six-week abortion ban, constitutional carry legislation and tax relief measures during “an era of Biden inflation,” DeSantis said.

“Leadership is not about virtue signaling or building a brand,” DeSantis said. “Leadership is ultimately about results, and that’s what we do in the state of Florida.”

The crowd cheered when DeSantis promised to appoint a new FBI director on his first day as president. He said in the White House, he would bring in staff from outside Washington, D.C. to hold the federal government bureaucracy “accountable.”

But he can’t bring those changes to the country if he does not win, calling for a reversal of the losing streak other states Republican parties have seen in recent years. If nominated, DeSantis said he would bring the policies that have won Republicans victories in Florida and Iowa to the White House and fight “woke” ideology in education, businesses and the U.S. Congress.

“The woke mind virus represents a war on truth,” DeSantis said. “So we will wage a war on the woke.”

Mike Pence calls for GOP to resist ‘politics of personality’ in 2024

Pence, the only 2024 guest to ride with Ernst Saturday, said he enjoyed participating in the “Roast and Ride” on the nearly 90-degree day.

“I rode and I roasted on the ride,” Pence said.

Pence told event attendees that the country is in trouble: “I expect that’s what brought you all out today.” While Pence has not yet announced his run, he rallied the crowd against President Joe Biden, calling for returning Washington, D.C. to Republican control.

“I believe in the American people,” Pence said. “And I know that with the right leadership in the White House and in the Congress of the United States, we will take America all the way back and then some, to prosperity and security.”

Pence said he was proud to be a part of Trump’s administration, discussing conservative wins like appointing three conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices, praising the overturn of Roe v. Wade in 2022, and supporting the U.S. military in the fight against ISIS.

While he didn’t mention Trump, Pence called for Republicans to resist the “politics of personality.” He said conservatives need to offer a positive vision of the future, he said, and that means not giving in to the “siren song of populism.” Pence also pointed to his planned campaign launch Wednesday in Iowa.

“Iowa’s the place that shapes principled conservative leadership, Iowa’s the place that shapes the standard-bearer of this party,” Pence said. “… I don’t have anything to announce today, but I can tell you: When I got time to announce coming this Wednesday, I’m announcing in Iowa.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott says America needs optimistic leadership

Scott kicked off the string of presidential candidate speeches, boasting his relationships with Iowa’s U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ernst, and his previous times speaking at the “Roast and Ride” event.

The candidate shared his positions on issues impacting Iowa, calling for energy independence through the approval of projects like the Keystone pipeline and for securing the U.S.-Mexico border to combat the fentanyl crisis impacting much of rural America.

The South Carolina Republican also emphasized his roots, saying his path from growing up in a low-income, single parent household to serving as a senator proves the “American story” still exists. He told the crowd that he disagrees with Democrats who criticize America, saying the country’s best days are ahead of it, but that “it will take strong, optimistic leadership to get us there.”

Scott has sought to contrast himself from Trump by emphasizing a positive message for the U.S. moving forward, saying on the campaign trail that he wants to reunify the country.

“Never, ever lose faith in America,” Scott said. “And it is time for us to have a president who not only believes in America, but has lived the American truth, and the truth of my life disproves the lies of the radical left.”

Nikki Haley calls for end of aid to countries that ‘hate America’

Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, the only woman running for president, brought her husband, Michael, to the stage because he is about to be deployed in the National Guard. “I wanted you see that cute husband of mine, because we won’t see him for a while,” she said.

She mentioned concerns about student achievement but called “biological boys” playing sports against girls “the greatest women’s issue of our time.”

Haley, trained as an accountant, emphasized cutting federal spending. “I will veto any spending that doesn’t take us back to pre-COVID levels. No more debt once and for all,” she said.

Her biggest applause line: “When I am president, we will stop giving money to countries that hate America.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson makes Iowa appeal to relatability, farming background

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he received the highest compliment ever on the campaign trail in Iowa recently. An Iowan chatted with him for a few minutes and then remarked, “You know, you seem like a normal person. Is that not the greatest compliment you can have?”

Hutchinson emphasized his farm background and record of cutting budgets and state government employment as governor. He didn’t mention any of his GOP opponents but pointed to his “demeanor,” a common criticism against Trump: “And I hope I have a new demeanor for government service that reflects our country, that reflects our national character,” he said.

While he touched on GOP boilerplate such as border security and energy policy, he stayed away from the cultural issues that many of the other candidates focused on.

Instead of lauding Reynolds’ actions against transgender athletes and “parental rights,” he congratulated her for efforts on computer literacy in schools.

Larry Elder asks for help getting on debate stage

Former talk show host and California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder jokingly thanked Ernst for welcoming “the Black face of white supremacy” to speak. Elder said he was asked by a newspaper reporter Friday why he was running as a “long shot” to winning the nomination.

The Republican candidate said he is not looking for a book deal or a television show, highlighting his history of having a column, two nationally syndicated television shows and a radio show. He said he left media jobs when he ran against California Gov. Gavin Newsom in the 2021 recall election.

Elder called for Iowans to learn about his policy positions and to support him to get on the debate stage, set for Aug. 23 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To participate, candidates must meet requirements including getting contributions from 40,000 unique donors and pledging to support the eventual Republican nominee.

“Lots of candidates are long shots until they aren’t,” Elder said. “… I’ve already have all the advantages suggested, I’m doing this because I have an obligation.”

Vivek Ramaswamy calls for GOP to work on appealing to millennials

Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur running for the Republican nomination, said he liked traveling to Iowa because Iowans aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions. Ramaswamy, 37, is the youngest candidate running for the Republican nomination, and said his generation is “hungry for a cause.”

He said millennials are looking for purpose and meaning, needs that used to be fulfilled by faith, patriotism and family.

“When you have a black hole that runs that deep, that is when the poison fills the void,” Ramaswamy said.”It almost doesn’t matter what the poison is, woke-ism, transgenderism, climatism, COVID-ism, globalism — these are symptoms of a deeper void of purpose.”

He said his goal is to restore the belief in the “American dream,” and bring younger people to the Republican Party.

“If we can revive that dream, over group identity and victimhood and grievance, then nobody — not a nation, not a corporation, not a virus — is going to defeat us,” Ramaswamy said. “That is what American exceptionalism is all about.”

Perry Johnson says he’s running Washington outsider campaign

Perry Johnson, a Michigan businessman, opened with a provocative line: “I am probably too conservative for this group.”

He called himself a Washington outsider – a trait he said he shares with Ernst. “Everybody hated her, too. She said she was going to cut the pork, and I’m going to do the same thing.”

Johnson, who is self-funding his campaign, also railed against the “ridiculous requirement” that a candidate must have 40,000 donors to qualify for the presidential candidate debates.

“But I’m going to get on that stage anyway,” he said. He asked voters to donate 2 cents to his campaign – “because that’s all I want, is 40,000 donors at 2 cents apiece.”

— Kathie Obradovich contributed to this report.

This article was originally published by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a sister publication of Arizona Mirror and a member of the States Newsroom network of local newsrooms.

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Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch
Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch

Robin Opsahl covers the Iowa state legislature and politics for the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a sister publication of the Arizona Mirror and a member of the States Newsroom network of local news outlets. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.

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