Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has bet big on his veteran status as part of his Iowa-or-bust campaign strategy, touting his military service as a distinguishing factor in the steadily narrowing Republican field.
The only veteran in the GOP primary field, DeSantis has courted the vote of former service members via his Iowa veterans coalition, and made his time in the Navy a focus of his TV ads and campaign speeches, in a bid to close the gap between himself and former President Trump.
While DeSantis is far behind Trump in polls, how long he stays in the race could depend on whether he can beat out former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in what appears to be a close sprint for second in the Hawkeye State.
“He needs a boost in one of the early states to continue on,” one Republican strategist told The Hill, noting that is unlikely to happen in New Hampshire, where DeSantis has spent relatively little time campaigning and Haley is well ahead in polls.
“If he can’t come in a close second in Iowa, where he’s put all his chips down, it’s game over.”
DeSantis’s military record paints a stark contrast with former President Trump, who has been accused of dodging the draft as a young man and has reportedly called U.S. soldiers killed in battle “losers.”
But the strategist was skeptical that would make a difference come Monday. The Hill/Decision Desk HQ polling average in Iowa shows Trump leading with 54.4 percent support, followed by Haley at 17.4 percent and DeSantis at 15.9 percent.
“Veterans who like Trump at this point are already aware about the problematic comments he made about wounded warriors, about prisoners of war,” the strategist said. “Those are baked into the cake at this point, and they continue to support him no matter what.”
If DeSantis does fizzle in Iowa, it won’t be for a lack of trying.
The Florida governor has held a dizzying string of campaign events in Iowa ahead of the state’s Jan. 15 caucuses and often boasts of visiting all 99 counties in the state since launching his campaign in May.
And he often leans into his military service while on the campaign trail — telling voters of feeling called to join the Navy after 9/11. He later served as a Navy lawyer at the Guantanamo Bay detention base in Cuba and while deployed to Iraq after graduating from Harvard Law School.
The DeSantis campaign has repeatedly revamped its strategy as he has struggled to gain ground on Trump and steadily lost ground to Haley. As part of its efforts to turn the tide over the summer, the campaign said it would seek to amplify his biography.
In a memo sent to donors in July, his campaign said they found that “when voters hear about the Governor’s bio principally as a Dad and as a veteran — they like him and are open to hearing more about him,” as reported by NBC News.
This fall, DeSantis unveiled his veterans’ policy agenda, a plan that focuses on skirting the bureaucracy currently around government services, modernizing Veterans Affairs systems and infrastructure, and combating veteran suicide and homelessness.
And his Iowa veterans coalition, launched in mid-October, includes chair and influential Iowa state lawmaker House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, himself a former Marine.
“Gov. DeSantis answered the call to service when our nation needed him,” Windschitl said in a statement at the time, as reported by the Des Moines Register. “Now America is seeking a leader who can deliver, and I fully believe that Ron DeSantis, who has worn our nation’s flag proudly in battle, is the right person at the right time to lead not only our nation to prosperity but the free world as well.”
The coalition now counts more than 1,400 supporters after heavy courting along the campaign trail, a spokesperson from the campaign told The Hill.
DeSantis has “engaged with members of local and national groups to recruit them to join the Veterans Coalition” while at stops with organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., the spokesperson said.
In addition, the campaign counts multiple former U.S. officials who have endorsed DeSantis, including retired Army Maj. Gen. Dennis Kenneally — former head of the California Army National Guard — and former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, they said.
Trump, in contrast, has repeatedly shown disdain for those killed in the line of duty or captured as prisoners of war (POW).
In July 2015, then-candidate Trump said the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who spent five years as a POW in Vietnam, was “not a war hero.”
“He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said.
Later, while president, Trump questioned the intelligence of U.S. troops, asked that wounded veterans be kept out of a military parade, and called off a scheduled visit to a military cemetery in France.
When Trump canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018, he reportedly didn’t believe it important to honor Americans killed in battle.
“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” Trump told senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, as reported by The Atlantic.
After Trump left office, a report from The New Yorker detailed how the former commander in chief wanted to throw a major military parade in Washington, D.C., on the Fourth of July, minus any disabled veterans.
“Look, I don’t want any wounded guys in the parade,” Trump reportedly told his own generals. “This doesn’t look good for me.”
That doesn’t seem to have made a difference to most GOP voters.
“Trump is the far and away favorite to win the caucuses, and the only way DeSantis can even come close is to try to peel off certain constituencies from Trump and bring them to his camp,” the strategist said.
“If the polls are any indication heading into caucus day, he hasn’t gotten enough of them to get a ticket out of Iowa after this.”
During CNN’s Jan. 10 Republican presidential primary debate in Iowa, the Florida governor only brought up his veteran status briefly, while drawing contrast with President Biden, who he criticized for being too light-handed in his response to Iranian proxy attacks in the Middle East.
“I’m the only one running for president that served in the armed forces. I deployed to Iraq back in 2007, 2008. So I understand what our military goes through. I would never put our troops in harm’s way, like Biden is doing in the Middle East, without defending them with everything they got,” DeSantis said.