DES MOINES — At a recent fundraiser, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told donors he’d make inroads with evangelicals and brought up his relationship with someone who could substantially boost his efforts, according to attendees: Bob Vander Plaats.
Vander Plaats, a Christian conservative leader and household name in Iowa Republican politics, has showered DeSantis with praise in interviews and on social media. Last fall, he declared DeSantis the midterms’ “HUGE winner” and former president Donald Trump the “HUGE loser.” More recently, he promoted polling showing DeSantis beating President Biden, praised Florida first lady Casey DeSantis’s new campaign initiative focused on moms and criticized Trump’s campaign choices, including his attacks on Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Republicans in this first-in-the-nation caucus state and beyond have taken notice, with operatives in rival campaigns as well other strategists predicting an eventual endorsement of the governor from Vander Plaats, who “seems to be infatuated with Ron DeSantis,” opined Iowa-based Republican consultant Craig Robinson.
This emerging sentiment has further inflamed Vander Plaats’s years-long turbulent relationship with Trump and his allies. The former president turned down an invitation to appear at the Iowa conservative’s summit on Friday, where DeSantis and other 2024 presidential rivals are slated to speak. “He wants us to kiss his ring and we’re not going to do it,” said one Trump adviser, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely.
Vander Plaats said he does not plan to endorse until around Thanksgiving and he pushed back on the notion that DeSantis has all but clinched his support, saying it’s “way too early in to be thinking that way,” and that it would be “news to my wife.” He noted that he has hosted other candidates such as Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Vivek Ramaswamy at his home, and met with former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and former vice president Mike Pence.
“My guess is especially in the Trump world they’re probably thinking that I’m not going to endorse the former president. And I’m not saying I’ve ruled that out but I would say that’d be a strong likelihood or a strong leaning that I probably would not endorse the former president,” Vander Plaats said in an interview this week, when asked about comments from Trump allies suggesting he will support DeSantis. “And DeSantis looks like a front-runner right now to be the alternative to Trump. So that may be why they’re saying that.”
The turmoil reflects the suspicions, bitterness and increasingly personal rivalries that have erupted in this state six months before it will kick off the Republican nomination process, largely revolving around Trump, who holds a wide lead in national polls, and DeSantis, who is running a distant second and struggling to gain traction after a rocky start. Some Republicans say they believe Vander Plaats will be watching to see if he can rebound.
Vander Plaats’s organization is set to host six presidential candidates at its Family Leadership Summit on Friday, with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson interviewing each of them. Reynolds, whom Trump publicly criticized on his Truth Social website this week, will be attending the event, where she’ll sign a six-week abortion ban.
While Trump will notably be absent, which Vander Plaats announced on Twitter earlier this week, the ex-president’s ally Kari Lake will host a separate event the same day as the summit, also here in Des Moines. Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesperson, cited a scheduling conflict with a Turning Point Action conference in Florida when asked for a response to Vander Plaats’s recent statements about Trump, and noted the former president will be back in Iowa next week.
The Family Leader gathering offers the 2024 candidates the opportunity to make their pitch to evangelical voters in Iowa, who represent a crucial voting bloc in the Hawkeye State. For Trump’s rivals, winning the first-in-the-nation caucus is seen as critical to halting his path to the GOP nomination, especially in a state he did not win in 2016.
Vander Plaats is a longtime fixture in Iowa politics, unsuccessfully running for governor three times. He’s now president and CEO of The Family Leader, a conservative Christian group. He is known in the state for his role in leading the effort to oust three state Supreme Court justices who overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
DeSantis’s campaign is focusing heavily on Iowa, where allies hope a come-from-behind victory would create momentum and break Trump’s grip on GOP voters if the former president maintains his lead in the national polls. The Florida governor and his wife met with Vander Plaats in Tallahassee in May, a couple of weeks before his official launch. Vander Plaats said they discussed how DeSantis’s Florida record would translate nationally.
A spokesman for DeSantis noted the May meeting but didn’t otherwise comment.
When DeSantis entered the race earlier this year, Vander Plaats tweeted that the governor was the “current favorite for alternative to Trump but needs to clear or diminish the field.” Others, he said, needed to prove “why they’re the better alternative.”
A pro-DeSantis super PAC, which is prohibited from coordinating with the campaign, is running a $100 million door-knocking operation with paid canvassers and a training camp dubbed “Fort Benning.” DeSantis dwelled on that ground game and his Iowa approach at a fundraiser this week, attendees said, as his stagnant position in national polling has stirred a new flurry of questions about his ability to topple Trump.
One attendee said he noted DeSantis’s good relationship with Reynolds, who is neutral in the primary but has joined DeSantis for many events and given him glowing introductions. Kollin Crompton, deputy communications director for the Iowa governor, reiterated her public commitment to not making an endorsement, saying in a statement: “Gov. Reynolds is committed to staying neutral.”
Vander Plaats’s overall influence is a topic of some debate in the party, given his tendency to declare his support late and other factors. “Way overblown” was how one operative in a Republican campaign put it. Others Republicans said a Vander Plaats endorsement gives candidates a boost by tapping into a broad network of organizers and motivated voters.
“Where Mr. Vander Plaats’s real value comes in is the ability to connect campaigns with these clusters of highly conservative religious evangelical leaders and activists in every county,” said Jimmy Centers, an Iowa-based Republican consultant who was previously a spokesperson for the Branstad-Reynolds administration. “It’s widely known that these are the types [of] people who will brave the cold on what’s supposed to be now January 15, 2024 and go to their local precinct caucus.”
Vander Plaats has endorsed the last three Republican winners of contested Iowa caucuses: He was on Mike Huckabee’s campaign in 2008, and gave late-in-the-race December endorsements to Rick Santorum in the 2012 cycle and Ted Cruz in the 2016 cycle. None went on to win the GOP nomination.
In the interview, Vander Plaats said, “America wants to turn the page to the next generational leader,” and that the former president “represents our biggest challenge in winning back the White House if he’s our nominee.” He added that Trump is “making a big mistake with the summit.”
Trump’s decision not to attend the Family Leadership summit is also part of a broader strategy of avoiding campaign “cattle calls” where he appears equal with other candidates when he’s ahead in the polls, according to an adviser. (Trump also skipped GOP Sen. Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” event last month.) Another Trump ally expressed annoyance at the notion that Trump would attend an event hosted by someone who has criticized him publicly.
Vander Plaats’s back-and-forth with Trump world is the latest chapter in their strained relationship. It was at the 2015 Family Leadership Summit that Trump suggested that then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was “not a war hero.” In 2016, Trump attacked Vander Plaats on Twitter after he endorsed Cruz, calling him a “phony” and suggesting he “tell his followers all the times he asked for him and his family to stay at my hotels — didn’t like paying.” Vander Plaats tweeted back: “still consider you a friend and you still can’t have my endorsement. My friendship isn’t phony.”
Earlier this year, Vander Plaats slammed Trump for suggesting many in the antiabortion movement believed the ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy that DeSantis signed in Florida this year was “too harsh.” He tweeted, “No, Mr. former President, many in the #ProLife community do not believe saving babies is too harsh,” adding that DeSantis was joining Reynolds “in leading on life.” He concluded, “The #IowaCaucus door just flung wide open.”
Yet both found their interests align when Trump was in the White House, especially when it came to the appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices, who eventually helped overturn Roe v. Wade.
Centers said that while Vander Plaats’s relationship with Trump is “fairly broken at this point,” it would be “premature to suggest that Mr. Vander Plaats or anyone within the Iowa evangelical community has sort of settled on anyone.”
Friday’s summit offers not only DeSantis an opportunity to change the emerging narrative around his candidacy. It also provides an introduction for candidates including Scott and Pence, who are hoping their focus on their Christian faith can help them pull off an upset in Iowa but who are currently polling in the single digits.
Knowles and Dawsey reported from Washington.