SIOUX CENTER, Iowa (AP) — LaTomah Hauff stopped at the red-draped table on her way into Dean’s Classic Car Museum to jot her contact information on a sign-up sheet to hear more about Ron DeSantis.
The 75-year-old retired speech pathologist had driven an hour to hear the Florida governor speak in northwest Iowa last Saturday. She was one of more than 600 Iowa Republicans who filed into the exhibit hall and past the display’s brochures about DeSantis and cards to sign pledging support for him in next year’s Republican presidential caucuses.
The display, with all the earmarks of a presidential campaign, was the work of Never Back Down, a super political action committee promoting DeSantis while he moves toward a 2024 bid.
It was also an early glimpse of how this group — able to receive unlimited sums from wealthy donors, unlike a presidential campaign — plans to build a network of supporters necessary to compete in the caucuses.
Essentially, it’s a caucus campaign that, for legal reasons, cannot attach itself explicitly to a candidate.
The novel approach, aimed at maximizing super PAC dollars, underscores the stakes in Iowa for DeSantis. He needs to show early that he is a viable threat to former President Donald Trump, whose team says it has already signed up thousands of Iowa volunteers and supporters before DeSantis has even declared his candidacy.
The effort comes with thorny challenges. The super PAC must essentially build a separate grassroots network to finagle commitments from Iowans to support DeSantis without coordinating with him.
“The biggest difficulty is the tightrope they are going to have to walk,” said Marlys Popma, a veteran Iowa Republican campaign organizer and former top adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Walking that line is going to be the most interesting thing, but I certainly see that it can be done and I think it’s a really interesting approach.”
About 240 miles southeast of the fundraiser DeSantis headlined in Republican-heavy Sioux County, the real work of Never Back Down was well under way.
In an office in Des Moines’ western suburbs, Republican operatives had by mid-May conducted three five-day training sessions for classes of paid organizers, with three more scheduled for June. By early May, the group had hired more than a half-dozen seasoned political strategists and recruited volunteers from veteran statewide organizers, including former senior aides to Gov. Kim Reynolds and former Gov. Terry Branstad.
As of early May, the teams had canvassed at least 1,000 addresses, and planned to double that by Sunday.
The goal is to secure commitments to back DeSantis at the caucuses, which are expected to lead off the 2024 Republican voting season, in all of the 1,670 precincts where the party plans to hold them next year.
“When you talk about caucus organizing, there are a lot of layers. But our particular layer is trying to build a ground game, build a volunteer network,” super PAC senior adviser David Polyansky said.
He said similar plans were in place in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and other early states.
Officials plan to make the Des Moines-area headquarters the training hub for more than 30 organizers the super PAC plans to hire and dispatch to the four early-contest states and more than a dozen others expected to hold their contests by next March 5, so-called Super Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the super PAC declined to suggest a budget for the Iowa operation. But Never Back Down has raised more than $30 million, and DeSantis has more than $80 million in his gubernatorial campaign account that is expected to be transferred into the super PAC.
Advisers for Never Back Down are betting the money is better spent on staff, door-knocking and phone-banking than advertising.
Ad sellers are required by law to offer a candidate’s campaign the cheapest rate, a legal distinction intended to make it easier for candidates to communicate to voters. That doesn’t apply to super PACs, which often pay exorbitant rates.
Polyansky is among several GOP operatives with Iowa experience advising the super PAC. Like fellow senior adviser Jeff Roe and pollster Chris Wilson, he was part of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s winning 2016 Iowa caucus campaign.
Organizing alone hardly guarantees success in Iowa, but it’s essential in quirky contests that require voters to attend evening meetings in the dead of winter. PAC dollars can make a difference in pursuit of a comparatively small number of supporters.
In 2016, Cruz won Iowa amid record turnout of roughly 180,000 with fewer than 52,000 votes.
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign used the contact information his local organizing staff collected from the large crowds he drew to his Iowa events to draw huge numbers of first-time participants to his ranks, fueling his caucus victory.
Trump, too, packed venues during his 2016 Iowa campaign, but his senior advisers, who had little understanding of the caucuses, failed to follow up with thousands of Iowans, costing him the early win.
This time, Trump’s top aides say they expect the former president to win Iowa in no small part by directing his audiences to a website tailored to connecting interested Iowans with local organizers.
They had expected to sign up thousands at an outdoor rally in Des Moines the same day DeSantis was in northwest Iowa, but the threat of severe storms prompted Trump to cancel. Trump’s campaign expects to make up the event in June.
Even with its big budget and a potential army of staff canvassing Iowa, an organizing campaign without the candidate is at a disadvantage, said veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy.
Murphy led a pro-Jeb Bush super PAC’s effort to promote the former Florida governor’s campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. With a $100 million budget, Right to Rise emphasized messaging via advertising and direct mail.
But Bush fell from his perch as the field’s early favorite, due in part to his failure to ignite enthusiasm and recognize Trump’s viability.
A super PACs’ strengths lies in echoing a candidate’s messages or attacking opponents. Persuading voters to commit to attending caucuses almost necessarily requires the presence of the candidate, Murphy said.
“If you don’t have the candidate — or a strong surrogate, like a spouse — to do the tour and meet people in a state with a culture of candidate interaction, it’s hard to have a big organic impact, and that’s what they are going to run into,” Murphy said.
If last Saturday was any preview, the super PAC seemed ready to shadow DeSantis, with all the trappings of a local, organizing campaign, including “DeSantis ’24” yard signs.
Hauff, the retired speech pathologist, will be a good test.
Though she signed up for more information, she stopped short of signing one of the caucus pledge cards next to the glossy brochures.
“I like what the man says. I like what he’s done in Florida. But it’s early,” Hauff said. “I’m not ready to make a full commitment right now. I want to see how this is going to shake out. He’s one of the names on my list.”
Thomas Beaumont, The Associated Press