DeSantis fights to fend off Haley in early states as ex-South Carolina governor surges

Nikki Haley is giving Ron DeSantis a run for his money.

The former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador is looking to build off a bout of recent momentum by outflanking DeSantis in a slew of early-voting states, including Iowa – the first-in-the-nation caucus state that DeSantis’ team sees as a key part of his effort to overtake former President Donald Trump in the 2024 GOP primary.

On Monday, Haley’s campaign announced that it would take out $10 million in TV, radio and digital ads in Iowa and New Hampshire beginning the first week of December. The expected ad buy is more than five times larger than the DeSantis’ campaign’s current advertising investments for the same period.

News of Haley’s ad reserves was followed on Tuesday by several dozen endorsements in Iowa, including from prominent Republicans like David Oman, the ex-chief of staff to both Iowa Govs. Robert Ray and Terry Branstad, and Christine Hensley, who was the longest-serving member of the Des Moines City Council.

Haley has emerged as a real threat to DeSantis in the race for the Republican primary’s second-place slot an important position given the numerous criminal charges facing Trump. Her recent rise in both national and early-state polling has knocked down DeSantis’ long-held argument that the 2024 nominating contest is effectively a two-man race between him and Trump.

“It’s going to be the classic showdown between momentum and machinery,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican strategist in Iowa. “DeSantis has certainly built the machinery; he has a big staff and they’ve done a ton of work. At the same time, Nikki Haley is surging. She’s grown her support organically. And I think you can see now that they’re going to do everything they can to stop DeSantis in Iowa.”

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Adding another layer of uncertainty into the primary fight is the decision by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina to suspend his presidential bid on Sunday.

While Scott was running well behind both DeSantis and Haley, his exit leaves his voters and donors up for grabs. That would seem to benefit Haley, who like Scott is a native South Carolinian and maintains a close political network there, though DeSantis acknowledged on Tuesday that he recently spoke to both Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence, who ended his White House bid late last month.

READ MORE: Pence exit portends a narrowed GOP field. Which Trump alternatives will benefit?

NBC News reported this week that DeSantis had recently urged his campaign finance committee to court donors who had given to Scott’s campaign. One top donor to Scott’s campaign, New York attorney Eric Levine, is set to co-host a high-dollar fundraiser for Haley next month.

DeSantis, for his part, is hitting the gas in Iowa, hoping that an all-out push in the final two months before the caucuses can guarantee him a strong finish there in January.

He rolled out a highly coveted endorsement last week from Kim Reynolds, the state’s popular Republican governor, and is well on his way to visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties — a political accomplishment dubbed the “full Grassley” after the state’s folksy senior U.S. senator.

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DeSantis is also moving three of his top campaign officials from Tallahassee to Iowa as part of a broader decision to place roughly a third of his campaign’s national staff in the Hawkeye State ahead of the Jan. 15 caucuses.

A spokesperson for the Florida governor’s campaign insisted that Haley has no realistic path to victory in the primary, saying that “every dollar spent on her candidacy is an in-kind [contribution] to the Trump Campaign.”

“History shows the Iowa Caucus cannot be bought on TV ads alone and that a strong ground game is what ultimately matters,” Andrew Romeo, DeSantis’ communications director, said. “We will be relentless over the coming weeks in making sure we are outworking and out-organizing the competition every single day.”

It won’t be easy to compete with the massive political machine DeSantis and his allies have built in Iowa.

In addition to Reynolds’ endorsement, DeSantis also has the support of 41 Republican state legislators and a network of county-level campaign chairs in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. There are more than half-a-dozen supportive offices spread around the state, and according to a campaign memo sent to donors last week, DeSantis’ team expects to soon have nearly 50 paid staffers in Iowa.

Aside from DeSantis’ formal campaign, Never Back Down, the main super PAC supporting his White House bid, has 26 paid staffers on the ground in Iowa and nearly 20,000 volunteers. The group has already knocked on some 633,000 doors across the state and collected close to 30,000 commitment cards from Iowa voters who say they plan to caucus for DeSantis, according to a spokesperson for the super PAC.

Haley’s team, meanwhile, is betting that DeSantis’ focus on Iowa and recent lack of momentum all but guarantees that he will stall out in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Recent polls in those states show the Florida governor falling into third – even fourth – place. An Emerson College poll released on Wednesday found DeSantis trailing Trump, Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in New Hampshire.

For now, DeSantis is wholly focused on Iowa. But winning the caucuses isn’t necessarily a predictor of success in the wider GOP primary. The last non-incumbent Republican to win both the Iowa caucuses and the overall nomination was George W. Bush in 2000.

DeSantis’ allies argue, however, that unlike past caucus winners – many of whom catered almost exclusively to evangelical conservatives – the Florida governor has broader appeal among GOP voters that can carry him in other early states like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, as well as the ground game to back it up.

What ultimately may matter more, however, is who has the momentum in the final months before voting begins, said Dallas Woodhouse, a veteran Republican operative in the Carolinas.

“People don’t decide on these things, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, until a day or two before they vote,” Woodhouse said. “It’s important to have a strong ground game. But if you’re in decline and you can’t stop the decline, your organization might not matter that much.”