Watch John King’s full report from Iowa on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” at 8 p.m. ET.
The homes are nearly identical, dotting both sides of the curvy road in a middle-class subdivision. But one stands out: 10 solar panels newly attached to its sloping roof as the crew links the system to the electric meter. The finishing touch: a new Midwest Solar magnet attached to the junction box.
Chris Mudd is the hands-on founder and CEO. He checked in with the crew, made a point of thanking the homeowner for her business and then took a moment to reflect on Midwest Solar’s swift progress.
“Our first 12 months I think we averaged three or four systems a month. … It was tough. Today, we are doing 15-20 systems a month,” Mudd says. “We lost money the first year we were in business and we’re going to make money our second year. I think that’s good. Starting a business from scratch is very difficult.”
Yes, he says, some of the credit goes to President Joe Biden’s clean energy initiatives – particularly tax incentives for solar systems.
“Absolutely,” Mudd says. “There are lots of grants available to business owners. The tax credit is at that 30%. Absolutely.”
But Mudd is a lifelong Republican, would prefer that tax credit money instead be spent on a border wall and is rooting for a Donald Trump comeback – beginning here in Iowa – to make that happen.
“Do I think Donald Trump’s perfect? No,” Mudd says. “Personally, I’m not a big fan of who he is and what he does and how he lives. But I think the decisions and things that he did for the country were good.”
Our conversation was the day after the former president was indicted again by a special counsel, this time on charges stemming from Trump’s effort to stay in power after losing the 2020 election.
My visit to Iowa was part of a new project designed to build relationships with voters and to see the 2024 campaign through their eyes and their experiences as the cycle unfolds. The first-in-the-nation GOP caucus state is our first foray for the obvious reason: Trump at the moment is the formidable favorite to win the Republican nomination and, if he is to be stopped or even stalled, it would likely have to come early in the process.
“I think he’s the best guy for the job,” Mudd tells us. “I wonder why they are attacking him so hard. Why are they going after this guy so hard? Does everybody really believe what happened was exactly the way that the government is laying it out today? I don’t.”
Mudd’s distrust runs deep, and like many Republicans, still includes the 2020 presidential vote count – even though there is no evidence of widespread election fraud that would have affected the outcome.
“Did something happen to that election?” Mudd asks. “You know, we have six states change late at night, from the trajectory of where they are going.”
I remind him that this was because some states counted early ballots first, and others counted the ballots cast on Election Day first. Biden, for example, had a big lead in the early hours of the count in Ohio and Texas, because they counted early ballots first, but he ultimately lost both by wide margins as all ballots were counted. Pennsylvania and Georgia were among the states where Election Day votes were counted first, and Trump led in early returns but faded as the counting turned to votes cast early.
Mudd does not dispute this but says he would have more confidence if states followed the same procedures.
Families like the Mudds, to borrow a phrase, are what makes America great.
Jim Mudd Sr. was an AM radio voice, who started a small advertising business in Cedar Falls in 1981 at the suggestion of a local Iowa car dealer. Mudd Advertising now employs 85 people and has clients from coast to coast.
This American Dream family is also living America’s political divide.
Dad and three sons are loyal Republicans; two daughters are Democrats.
The Republicans don’t watch and don’t trust CNN. But they are beyond gracious and kind to CNN visitors. They revere former President Ronald Reagan, yet the Trump effect – and the Fox effect – on today’s Republican Party is abundantly clear in an hour-plus conversation around a Mudd Advertising conference table.
“Nothing about that deal is the American way, I don’t think,” Mudd Sr. says of the latest Trump indictment.
Of the eight family and friends around the table, only one voices opposition to Trump. Tracey Mudd, Chris’ wife, says she does back most Trump policies.
“It is more of his tone,” she says. “He kind of rubs me the wrong way sometimes.”
No one at the table raises a hand when asked if anyone supports US financial and military assistance to Ukraine.
The explanation from Rob Mudd is stunning, and no one at the table disputes it. “I don’t believe what we are being told about Ukraine,” he says. “You don’t have to be smart to connect the dots, right. And so, is the war to cover up sins committed so that you can cover your tracks? Too much money that’s been thrown over there.”
The unfounded allegation that Biden’s support for Ukraine is somehow linked to his son Hunter Biden’s overseas business dealings sounds like an old Tucker Carlson show open.
So, I try this question: “You think all the NATO countries would do what Biden told them to do to cover up some Hunter Biden business deal?”
Rob Mudd doesn’t hesitate.
“It all depends on (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky and how much dirt he has on Biden to keep the money coming.”
When I suggest “that’s out there,” there is laughter around the table.
One big goal of this project is to better understand America’s divide, and this is just the beginning. The kindness and goodwill around the table – despite clear disagreements over what is true – are an encouraging first step.
Jim Mudd Jr. is for Trump, but says he is also impressed with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy’s promise to slash the federal bureaucracy.
Beyond those two, the 2024 candidate who has piqued his interest the most is Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
“I think he is a really good guy,” Mudd Jr. says. His father agrees: “He sounds like a real genuine individual to me. He’s smart and he’s even minded. He’s open minded, I should say.”
CNN reminds the group RFK Jr.’s family is unhappy with his primary challenge to Biden. And that he has pushed views on vaccines and other issues that reputable scientists consider conspiracy theories and dangerous.
The conversation is polite, cordial. And it vividly captures the country’s red state-blue state divide, which includes what you think of Trump and where you get your news.
“I think it’s nearly impossible to know what is true,” Chris Mudd says. “Because there’s so many – there’s a little bit of truth in every lie. … It’s hard to distinguish what’s really true and what’s not because there is a little bit of truth in everybody’s angle.”
Another takeaway of the conversation is that the roughly half of likely GOP voters who are backing Trump are a loyal group, to say the least.
There is that other half to consider, of course.
Sioux City is 212 miles west of Cedar Falls and was a Trump stronghold in the 2016 caucuses.
Attorney Priscilla Forsyth was raised Republican but switched to the Democrats while in law school. Her caucus experience includes backing Howard Dean in 2004 and John Edwards in 2008.
But she attended a small Trump event in 2016 and liked what she heard.
“He does have charisma, I mean, whether you like him or not, he does,” Forsyth says in an interview at the Woodbury County courthouse. “I liked his policies.”
She’s attended three Trump rallies and, for the most part, isn’t bothered by his aggressive language and attacks. But his effort to stay in power after losing the 2020 election was a turning point.
“You have to respect the system,” Forsyth says. “Otherwise, the system falls apart.”
While she doesn’t flatly rule out voting for Trump again, Forsyth is shopping for a new candidate.
“I think the country needs to move on,” she says. “I think we need to get rid of Biden. I think we need to get rid of Trump. I think we need to move on.”
So there’s at least modest evidence some past Trump supporters are looking elsewhere.
But beating him here, or wounding him here, would require a giant change in the current GOP math.
Watch the booming Des Moines suburbs over the next five months to see if there is any evidence that is happening. The population in Metro Des Moines is up about 60,000 voters just from 2016, and the suburbs are Trump’s kryptonite.
“I don’t appreciate the negativity, the character,” says Jaclyn Taylor, a single mother and entrepreneur who lives in suburban Waukee.
Taylor supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 caucuses, but voted for Trump in November 2016 and again in 2020.
She sighs when asked how she would vote if there is a Biden-Trump rematch.
“I don’t know. It’s very difficult. I really can’t answer that question.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott intrigues Taylor. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley does, too. Sometimes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as well.
Betsy Sarcone is also a single mom and a real estate agent who lives in nearby Urbandale.
DeSantis tops her list at the moment, but she, too, wants to take her time and is not a fan of the six-week abortion ban signed by the Florida governor.
“I don’t feel it is my place to judge,” Sarcone says. “I think that is up to them.”
Sarcone was a Florida Sen. Marco Rubio supporter in the 2016 caucuses and, like Taylor, voted for Trump against Hillary Clinton and again against Biden.
But if 2024 is a 2020 rematch, Sarcone says she would back Biden – because she would feel abandoned by the GOP.
“I think the victim mentality has run its course,” Sarcone said of Trump. “I see the party as the party of personal responsibility and for this man to still be on the national stage representing the Republican Party is very troubling to me.”
Both suburban mothers are feeling 2016 déjà vu five months before Iowa casts the first 2024 votes.
Shopping around is an Iowa tradition, but both understand that a splintered field eventually helps Trump, as it did in 2016. And both say their goal is to talk to friends as the January caucuses approach, with the hope they can agree on one Trump alternative.
“I think the moderates need to band together,” Sarcone says. “We’ve got to find one that works.”
Taylor says she is having the same conversations, because “it’s a no-brainer, right?”