These GOP women in Iowa are looking at someone other than Trump

Date:


Kellerton, Iowa
CNN
 — 

Shanen Ebersole calls the rolling hills of southwest Iowa her happy place, where time with the grazing cows is her way to relax and reset.

“I’ll just sit here with my cows and take a breath, and everything goes back to the way it should be.”

Cattle farming has been Ebersole’s passion and profession for 25 years and, like most people you meet in rural Iowa, she describes herself as a conservative and two-time Donald Trump voter.

“I love what he did for small business,” Ebersole said in an interview this week. “I love what he did for agriculture. I wish he could have done it a bit quieter.”

The loud part is why Ebersole hopes the Republican Party moves on — and that Iowa can begin that process when it holds its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses next month.

“Because he wasn’t as respectful as I think our president should be,” Ebersole said of Trump. “Because he didn’t bring us together. Because of the divisiveness. Because of my liberal friends that were literally scared for their safety.”

That last part is telling for a couple of reasons.

First, it reflects Ebersole’s libertarian brand of conservatism.

“I want everyone to be able to do what they want to do safely and not have it affect the next person,” she said. “I have so many liberal friends who were divided and who were scared by some policies that were put into place, or the inflammatory statements that people have made in the past that they lived scared, and no one should have to live that way.”

She added: “But I also shouldn’t be scared because I want to own my own guns. I can do that safely in my own home without affecting anyone else.”

John King talks with Iowa voter Shanen Ebersole in Ringgold County, Iowa, in December.

The judgmental tone of Trump and his allies doesn’t sit well with Ebersole.

“I just want to be out here with my cows and live my life and feed people and know that everyone can get along,” she said. “The division in our country now right now is what really concerns me.”

CNN returned to Iowa to hear how voters are feeling with just about a month until the first votes are cast – part of a new project to track the 2024 election through voters’ voices and experiences. Trump’s support is deep here, especially in rural counties such as Ringgold where the Ebersoles own and rent land to graze their cows.

But if there is to be an Iowa surprise, the changes we saw over the past five months suggest it’s Republican women who will power it.

“I think I would lean towards (Nikki) Haley,” Ebersole said of the January 15 caucus vote. “I think that in the face of people calling names, in the face of people yelling and screaming in front of her, she held her composure. I think that she has the demeanor and the life experience that is more connected to actual Americans.”

Priscilla Forsysth, too, is tired of Trump’s antics. She was an early Trump backer in 2016, helping the insurgent newcomer to a strong caucus showing in Sioux City. But she decided to move on after Trump refused to accept the 2020 election results.

We first visited with Forsyth in August, as part of our project.

Back then, she was still early in her search but wowed by this cycle’s GOP insurgent: Vivek Ramaswamy.

“A lot of us walked out of seeing him thinking, that’s probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever heard,” Forsyth said back then. “I really got the feeling he’s brilliant. He’s got energy. He’s young.”

Now, though, Forsyth is lobbying friends to support Haley, the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations.

“Usually, to me, the debates don’t make a big difference,” Forsyth said. “But they kind of did this time.”

Ramaswamy’s constant interruptions annoyed Forsyth and convinced her he was not mature or flexible enough to be president. She thought Haley, on the other hand, showed poise in the debates. The former governor closed the sale when Forsysth attended a Haley event on October 8, the day after the Hamas terror attack on Israel.

“She was very strong, but she was compassionate at the same time,” Forsyth said. “It was just what you want to hear from a leader.”

Central Iowa in December.

On our latest visit, we saw Forsyth and a few friends at the Pickled Palette, a craft studio where customers can paint ceramics or fuse glass into wall hangings or Christmas decorations.

“One of the great benefits of being in Iowa is that you meet everybody in person,” Forsyth said in an interview this week at her Sioux City law office. “If you haven’t met the president of the United States, it’s your own fault.”

Forysth, a caucus veteran, thinks Haley has a chance to win. Most other Haley backers think the former governor’s best bet is a stronger-than-expected second-place finish that shows Trump is vulnerable and gives her momentum out of Iowa.

Jeanie Farrell, one of Forsyth’s friends, said she was just now beginning to pay attention and described herself as Republican but not a Trump fan. Farrell was not sure if she would take the time to caucus but acknowledged that staying home would indirectly help Trump.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s a lot to think about.”

Still, Forsyth was bullish on Haley’s chances, despite recent polling showing Trump with a giant Iowa lead.

Her take: “I think they are underestimating the people who don’t want the chaos anymore.”

Jaclyn Taylor is one of those voters.

A single mom and entrepreneur, Taylor lives in the Des Moines suburbs where opposition to Trump is easy to find. Taylor has settled on Haley after a few months debating between her and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But as she lobbies friends to join her, Taylor said she is learning one ingredient of Trump’s resilience – what she sees as an unwillingness of Republicans who want to move on to speak up, because it causes uncomfortable moments with friends and relatives who are Trump supporters.

“Some Republicans feel we are kind of stuck in this era, where there is a very powerful segment of the Republican population that are the voices.” That’s how Taylor put it. “The influence of the louder voices is having an impact on people. Older and younger,” she added.

Here is how she recounted one recent conversation with friends: “I said, ‘Well, who are you voting for?’ And they said, ‘Oh, I really like Nikki Haley’ or ‘I really like Ron DeSantis, but when it comes down to the voting and the primary, I will probably just vote for Trump because he is going to get it anyway.’ And that just really frustrated me.”

Taylor vowed to continue her lobbying, and to make the argument that Haley has the best case to emerge as a strong Trump alternative.

John King sits with Iowa voter Jaclyn Taylor in Waukee, Iowa, in December.

Betsy Sarcone feels the same way, and since our first conversation five months ago, she has stressed the goal for Iowa to use its first-in-the-nation vote to elevate one Trump alternative. In August, she was leaning toward DeSantis, but she now lists Haley as her likely choice.

Still, Sarcone said she could have one more change of heart if she saw clear evidence that DeSantis was gaining significant support.

“It would be Nikki Haley right now,” Sarcone said. “I would fall on my sword and go caucus for DeSantis if it would really make a difference. If people were going to consolidate, I would go with DeSantis, but that’s not what I’m seeing so far.”

What she is seeing, Sarcone said, is still a Haley-DeSantis suburban split – which she knows helps Trump. “That’s the question, right? How do you get people to consolidate?”

When we first met Chris Mudd back in August, he was running a new solar energy startup out of a Cedar Falls advertising business founded by his father. But Midwest Solar is growing, and we met Mudd this week at his new office in neighboring Waterloo.

He has the same candidate, though. The same passion for building a border wall and ending US aid to Ukraine. And the same confidence of a big Trump win in Iowa.

“You got to have thick skin to be for Trump today,” Mudd said. “And so, I think those people that say they are for him are going to show up.”

He was quick to answer when we asked about DeSantis’ argument that Republicans must move on from Trump if they want to win, or the Haley stump-speech assertion that Republicans need less drama and chaos as well as a younger leader.

“They’re 30, 35, 40 points behind Trump,” Mudd said. “I would say they are the chaos, and they should stand down and support Trump.”

Mudd is not swayed by recent national polling that shows Haley running considerably stronger than other GOP candidates against President Joe Biden in a general election. Trump’s legal woes – or the fact that he could be both the Republican nominee and a convicted felon by the summer – aren’t moving him either.

“I don’t worry about those indictments,” Mudd said. Trump, who has pleaded not guilty and maintains no wrongdoing, is facing 91 criminal charges across four separate cases.

“I don’t think they’re fair. I think Trump has been pushed into a corner. I think he’s got lots of targets on him, and I think he is doing a great job deflecting every one of them,” Mudd said.

Nor does Mudd listen when Republicans like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s trailing in the 2024 primary polls, or former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney assert that the conduct of Trump and his supporters on January 6, 2021, should be disqualifying.

“They wanted it to happen because they wanted Trump to not be eligible to run again,” Mudd said of the attack at the US Capitol, repeating a baseless MAGA conspiracy theory.  “I think it was set up to end Trump. … That’s how I feel. It looks like a setup.”

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