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Bob Vander Plaats, influential Iowa evangelical leader, endorses DeSantis

Iowa evangelical leader on endorsing DeSantis
Iowa evangelical leader explains why he endorsed DeSantis over Trump 05:42

Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in Iowa, endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, giving his campaign a boost as he goes all in to try to win the first state in the presidential primary cycle.

DeSantis still trails former President Donald Trump in early polling by large margins in Iowa and nationally. But supporters of DeSantis in the faith community point to Vander Plaats' audience and influence to argue that his endorsement, as well as the endorsement from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, will help DeSantis make inroads with evangelical Christian voters in Iowa who have stuck with Trump since 2016.

Vander Plaats made the announcement during an appearance on Fox News Tuesday night, saying his endorsement was DeSantis' to "lose" after he made repeated overtures, visiting Vander Plaats' organization's office and attending church with him.

Vander Plaats added that DeSantis "closed the sale" for it during a recent Thanksgiving candidate roundtable hosted by Vander Plaats' organization by arguing the country needs a president who can serve two terms. 

"You need a president who's gonna surround themselves with the best and brightest people versus having a hard time attracting them again. And someone who's actually going to do what they say they're going to do. And I just think he's got the spine to do it. And I think he's got the experience to win for us," Vander Plaats said on Fox. 

Vander Plaats is the president and CEO of The FAMiLY Leader, an Iowa-based conservative Christian organization that pushes for "inspiring Christ-like leadership" in the state's government, and has direct contact with over 2,200 churches in Iowa. 

The group hosted DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy for a Thanksgiving roundtable in Des Moines last weekend. 

Vander Plaats' endorsement is not tied to his organization, which historically has not endorsed before the Iowa caucus and has a nonprofit wing that is restricted from supporting a certain candidate. 

Vander Plaats has backed the last three eventual winners of the Iowa GOP caucus: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008. Vander Plaats also ran for Iowa governor in 2010 before joining The FAMiLY Leader.

But none of Vander Plaats' backed candidates in Iowa went on to win the nomination. Asked on Fox about that, Vander Plaats replied, "I think the country needs to look at Iowa a little bit more." 

"Iowa is ground zero. If you up-end the former president here, I think we are going to offer America a choice between President Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis. If President Trump wins Iowa here, I think it's going to be awfully hard to make the case that you can beat President Trump and he's going to be your eventual nominee," he added.

Vander Plaats has been at odds with Trump, whom he has called "the biggest risk" for Republicans "to not win back the White House." On Tuesday, he said the evangelical community may be split on Trump because "they're a little bit exhausted by the constant indictments" and "constant complain[ts] about the past." 

He has been critical of Trump calling Florida's six-week abortion ban "a terrible thing." Reynolds, who has also endorsed DeSantis, signed a similar ban that is stalled in the courts. 

"The sanctity of life is not something to be nuanced. It's not something to be poll-tested, it's not a thing where the heartbeat bill is 'too harsh' of a thing to be passed in the state of Iowa or the state of Florida," Vander Plaats said last Saturday at a gala put on by the Pulse Live Advocates group, the longest standing anti-abortion rights group in the Hawkeye State. 

Trump's pollsters suggested in a November memo that a Vander Plaats endorsement of DeSantis would have "no significant impact on the Presidential ballot."

In August, Trump cited a Reuters report about how DeSantis and his affiliated groups paid $95,000 to the Family Leader Foundation, the non-profit wing of Vander Plaats' organization, to buy ad space in a booklet distributed at the event. He claimed DeSantis was trying to "buy" Vander Plaats' endorsement. 

Pre-empting the expected Vander Plaats endorsement, Trump's campaign put out a statement noting Iowa faith leaders supporting Trump and again suggested Vander Plaats' endorsement was due to that $95,000 total payment.

Vander Plaats pushed back during his Tuesday Fox interview, saying that "everything we do is above board and in sunlight" and that all campaigns were able to pay to be put into the program booklet. 

CBS News was first to report that DeSantis told fundraisers and donors last Monday that he was expecting Vander Plaats' endorsement within a week of the Thanksgiving roundtable. DeSantis' campaign denied he had made those comments and Vander Plaats said at the time that the "jury's still out" on his final decision. 

DeSantis teased the endorsement while campaigning in New Hampshire on Tuesday, saying the two have a good relationship and that he was "hopeful" about securing Vander Plaats' support. 

"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. "To have the governor, then to have Bob and his network — that's going to be a pretty powerful machine."

David Kochel, a longtime Iowa GOP strategist, said Vander Plaats' backing may not bring "a whole bunch of votes by himself" but represents "another pretty big piece of the puzzle in being successful in Iowa."

"DeSantis is looking for all the good news he can find after having a pretty tough summer. For him, it reflects some movement and some momentum," he said. 

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