Iowa blizzard is a fitting end to a GOP campaign that never really was

Iowa blizzard is a fitting end to a GOP campaign that never really was

DES MOINES — Kari Lake looked bored.

Somehow, the Donald Trump-loving Arizona Republican managed to make it into Iowa to hit the stump for the former president. But no sooner had she landed than her event was canceled. And so she sat at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, a high-end hub for campaign staff and operatives, talking with reporters to do the job of campaign surrogate but also — let’s be clear — pass the time.

She at least had something to do. The political industrial complex that had come to the state to close out the caucus instead found themselves walloped by a foot of snow that had ground the campaign trail — and the highways — to a halt.

Days before the Iowa caucuses, the field was, quite literally, frozen. The weather prompted event cancellations for Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, the two contenders fighting for a second-place finish in Iowa. It was, in some ways, a fitting beginning to the end of a caucus campaign that, with Trump’s dominance, had never truly felt like one to begin with.

“I heard there is a huge storm coming,” Lake, herself a native of Bettendorf, deadpanned to POLITICO in a brief interview, “and it’s here.”

Indeed it was.

With events canceled, national reporters had nothing to do but sit around in downtown hotel lobbies. One reported making plans to catch a matinee. Others simply hoped to find a place to eat, ideally with a source. Legacy news outlets’ expense accounts were among the afflicted.

Upstairs at the Hotel Fort Des Moines on Friday, after holding her morning tele-town hall — a last-minute virtual event in place of a previously scheduled campaign stop in Fort Dodge — Haley used her newfound free time to get a jump on the next contest. With Iowa frozen, she held court with New Hampshire press.

In Urbandale, a door-knocker for the conservative group Americans For Prosperity, which is supporting Haley, trudged through snow that covered his boots, planning to hit as many homes as he could on Friday. At one point, a couple invited the operative, who asked to remain nameless, to come inside and warm up from the frigid temperatures. He stayed outdoors.

Rob Sand, the state auditor and last Democratic officeholder statewide, navigated his Ford F-150 four-wheel drive to breakfast with reporters at the Des Moines Downtown Marriott, and said he helped push a stranded motorist out of a parking lot.

“It’s kind of fun to get out there and see how bad it is,” Sand said.

This is what qualified as activity on caucus weekend. The Iowa capital is traditionally buzzing the weekend before the vote. But this year, once-coveted downtown hotels were all still open for booking.

Everyone from the lowliest volunteer to the highest-ranking campaign officials had their plans scrambled. The top Trump adviser Chris LaCivita, who was headed from the Hotel Fort Des Moines to a Bloomberg event at the Marriott, sported a new black North Face jacket he purchased the night before at REI in Des Moines.

Down the street, steps from the state capitol, as the snow came in sideways from once-in-a-decade blizzard, people walked in the middle of the street to pick up provisions from the Hy-Vee supermarket. A red-cheeked David Kochel, the Iowa Republican operative, looked objectively miserable as he waited to do a hit with an ABC affiliate out of Milwaukee. The airwaves don’t fill themselves.

How did this last weekend, just three days before the Iowa caucuses, compare to the last 40 years of caucuses past?

“Worst, no question,” he said, as snow filled the shot. “It’s not great here and I’m a hale and hearty Iowan, born and raised here. And it’s not even cold yet.”

Yes, it could get worse. While accumulating snow was winding down late Friday, the National Weather Service warned that increasing winds would result in blizzard conditions. Wind chills were already below zero Friday afternoon and were expected to drop to as low as minus-20 Friday night, minus-30 Saturday and minus-40 Saturday night, measures that could lead to frostbite and hypothermia.

Kochel predicted turnout on Monday could plummet. “If the roads are still shit, it could dip below 100,000.”

But those are Monday problems. For now, the campaigns and the press corps covering them had to contend with non-political elements.

Vivek Ramaswamy’s adviser Kathy Barnette, the former Pennsylvania Senate candidate, bundled up in a puffer jacket and beanie, walked through a West Des Moines hotel lobby with a coffee on Friday. Despite Ramaswamy braving the roads to hold four events and comparing himself to George Washington fjording the Delaware, the in-person meetings she had scheduled with farmers had been moved to Zoom.

“They’re Iowans, and they didn’t want to drive in,” she said.

The home state supporters of Haley, the former South Carolina governor, didn’t have much of a choice. Tom Davis, a Republican state senator from South Carolina who endorsed Haley, said he was driving the 818 miles from Charlotte to Des Moines after his flight got canceled on Friday. South Carolina state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, another of Haley’s former legislative colleagues, planned to wait and fly to Chicago on Saturday in the hopes of driving to Iowa from there.

The National Weather Service was cautioning Iowans to stay off the roads, instructing drivers to “seriously avoid traveling if possible.” In 2016, a volunteer on Ben Carson’s campaign died from injuries sustained in a car accident on an icy Iowa road ahead of the caucuses.

It wasn’t just the weather that had politicos down. So too did the general consensus that the caucuses themselves seemed like a meaningless exercise for second place, rather than a drama-fueled contest with a gripping conclusion that had warranted months of breathless and incremental coverage.

“Lots of reporters are here, but four and eight years ago you were seeing Japanese TV crews come in and outnumber the people showing up for a Biden town hall,” said David Weigel, a veteran campaign reporter who has covered the Iowa caucuses since 2008. “This year’s much less frenzied.”

As Grant Woodard, a Des Moines attorney and an alumnus of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Iowa campaign, and a driver for John Kerry here in 2004, put it: “I feel bad for the Republican staffers.”

He said, “I can imagine it’s hard to inspire people to come out to support you in the hope that you win second place.”

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