WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Ron DeSantis bet almost all of his presidential ambitions on Iowa. In the end, it was enough to help him stave off disaster.
DeSantis finished second to former President Donald Trump in Monday’s Iowa caucuses, a long-expected — but in recent weeks, far from guaranteed — outcome that should keep some wind in his campaign’s sails going forward.
The Associated Press called Iowa for Trump barely more than a half-hour after caucuses opened at 8 p.m. Eastern. By 11:30 p.m., with votes more than 90% counted, Trump had 51% of returns, followed by DeSantis at 21.3% and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley at 19%.
From the stage at a hotel watch party in West Des Moines, DeSantis grinned and shook hands with energized supporters, while his wife, Casey, handed out high-fives.
“Ron! Ron! Ron!” the crowd chanted.
“They threw everything but the kitchen sink at us,” DeSantis told the crowd shortly after second place was called for him just before 11:30 p.m. “They spent almost $50 million attacking us. No one’s faced that much all the way just through Iowa. The media was against us; they were writing our obituary months ago. ... But I can tell you, because of your support, in spite of all of that that they threw at us, everyone against us, we’ve got our ticket punched out of Iowa.”
After finishing fourth with 7.7% of the vote, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy announced he was suspending his campaign and endorsing Trump, telling reporters he would do “everything in my power” to help Trump get back to the White House.
Haley was unbowed by the outcome, telling supporters that the momentum that saw her surge to third place puts her in a good place to take on Trump moving forward.
“The pundits will analyze the results from every angle. We get that,” she said. “But when you look at how we’re doing in New Hampshire, in South Carolina and beyond, I can safely say tonight Iowa made this Republican primary a two-person race.”
For more than a year, DeSantis has trailed Trump in most Iowa polls, usually by at least 20 percentage points. In recent weeks, some polls showed him slipping into third behind former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
But after a relentless 99-county campaign that saw him pour tens of millions of dollars into the Hawkeye State, DeSantis managed to hold off Haley, affirming his standing as Republican voters’ current top alternative to Trump.
How long he’ll keep that position, though, is less certain. Haley holds sizeable polling advantages over DeSantis in New Hampshire, which will stage its primary Jan. 23, and her home state of South Carolina, where the primary is set for Feb. 24.
Given how much time and money he’d spent in Iowa, analysts saw finishing no worse than second as a must for DeSantis. Trump finished second in Iowa in 2016, as did Mitt Romney in 2012 — and both went on to secure the GOP nomination those years.
For all candidates, Iowa is arguably more important for showing early momentum than for its 40 delegate votes — although DeSantis’ second-place finish ensures he will receive at least some votes from the Iowa delegation at the Republican National Convention in July.
Crucially, Monday’s caucuses may help DeSantis’ team to convince donors, some of whom had become hesitant after months of negative momentum, that he’s not finished yet. Or at least that his candidacy did not completely falter before the first hurdle.
DeSantis is planning to attend a campaign event Tuesday morning in Greenville, South Carolina, followed by a town hall in Claremont, New Hampshire, Tuesday night.
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