DES MOINES, Iowa — Evangelical power broker Bob Vander Plaats endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, handing the GOP presidential candidate his second major endorsement this month in the Hawkeye State.
“I am thrilled to throw my personal endorsement and support behind Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida,” Vander Plaats said during an interview on Fox News.
Vander Plaats is considered a kingmaker in Iowa. He worked on Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign when the former Arkansas governor won the GOP caucuses that year. In 2012 and 2016, Vander Plaats endorsed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, respectively — both of whom won the first-in-the-nation contest.
Evangelicals and born-again Christians are a key voting group in Iowa, accounting for about two-thirds of Republican voters in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, according to an NBC News entrance poll that year. Cruz outperformed Donald Trump by 12 percentage points among evangelical voters on his way to a narrow victory in Iowa, the survey showed.
On the campaign trail in New Hampshire just hours before Vander Plaats’ endorsement, DeSantis said he’s winning over Iowa evangelicals.
“I think that if you saw that Family Leader forum, clearly his folks there gravitated to me. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” DeSantis said, referencing a candidate event this month hosted by Vander Plaats’ organization.
DeSantis added that he has “a good relationship” with Vander Plaats, and that “Bob has been somebody that has been very vocal about Donald Trump is not going to be the way forward.”
Vander Plaats’ relationship with Trump has been frosty since the run-up to the 2016 Iowa caucuses, where the two regularly exchanged barbs in heated twitter exchanges. Eight years on, they are still at each other’s throats.
Just hours before endorsing DeSantis, Vander Plaats criticized Trump on X. Responding to a video posted by the Trump campaign, showing the former president excoriating Reynolds for endorsing Desantis, Vander Plaats wrote: “While disappointing… Exceptionally revealing. #LookHigher #ThinkBigger #ExpectMore when it comes to selecting our next president. #ChooseWell2024.”
The Trump campaign, in response to DeSantis’ recent endorsements in Iowa, said, “Kim Reynolds’ endorsement won’t save Ron DeSanctus, and neither will Vander Plaat$’ endorsement.”
Signs have been pointing toward a Vander Plaats endorsement of DeSantis for months now.
Moderating a conversation between DeSantis and two of his Republican opponents — entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley — Vander Plaats asked each candidate to address what he said were their biggest “hurdles” in the eyes of Iowa voters he’d spoken with.
For Haley, he said it was the perception among conservatives that she was in favor of weakened abortion restrictions. Ramaswamy, a practicing Hindu, was pressed on his faith. DeSantis, however, faced an easier line of questioning.
“Why is this your time?” Vander Plaats asked the governor, adding that polls have often shown that DeSantis is the second choice candidate among Trump supporters.
Vander Plaats’ apparent backing of DeSantis at the event wasn’t lost on some audience members.
Josh Rouser, 32, of Waverly, Iowa, said after attending the candidate forum that while Haley and Ramaswamy were well-received, “It did feel like it was the DeSantis show tonight,” noting that the governor’s supporters were by far the most vocal.
DeSantis crossed paths with Vander Plaats twice in the week leading up to Tuesday’s endorsement. The day after the Family Leader’s forum, Vander Plaats delivered remarks at a fundraising gala for the anti-abortion rights group Pulse Life Advocates.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in the next couple of months we have an opportunity to choose — and to choose well — a champion for the sanctity of human life,” Vander Plaats said in remarks that stopped just short of an endorsement.
Speaking to NBC News in July, Vander Plaats gave a glowing review of DeSantis’ performance as governor of Florida.
“He’s showing a lot of signs of he’s playing to win. And so, I think he’s a very, very real candidate to be an Iowa caucus winner,” Vander Plaats said at the time, while offering the White House hopeful some advice.
“The closer he can marry himself to Governor Reynolds, emulate Governor Reynolds, that would bode very, very well for him,” he said, referencing Iowa’s popular second-term Republican governor.
That marriage has since been made official, politically speaking. After appearing alongside Reynolds on the campaign trail at least eight times since announcing his White House bid in May, DeSantis secured her endorsement at a rally in Des Moines this month. Reynolds, who broke with the state’s tradition of the governor remaining politically neutral before the caucuses, painted DeSantis as a proven leader with a strong record in Florida that could be reproduced nationally.
The DeSantis campaign, with significant help from the super PAC Never Back Down, has visited 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties — a statewide tour colloquially known as the “Full Grassley” after the senior U.S. senator who popularized the practice.
On paper, DeSantis has made significant strides in running a traditionally successful Iowa campaign by racking up influential endorsements and dedicating significant time and financial resources to the state. But it remains unclear if the playbook will be enough to overcome Trump’s commanding lead in the polls.
An NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey last month showed DeSantis significantly trailing Trump’s commanding 43% support, with the governor tied at 16% with Haley.