Johnston, Iowa — Florida first lady Casey DeSantis kept the focus on family as she introduced herself to a barn full of mothers, grandmothers, retirees and local lawmakers to launch a program focused on mobilizing moms for her husband's presidential bid.
Chatting with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, DeSantis brought up her 3-year-old daughter's love of corn — she eats it "like no one's business," DeSantis said, adding that she promised her daughter she'd bring some back from Iowa.
Later, she praised her husband, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as a fighter for "parents' rights," recounting his pushback against school shutdowns and mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic and the laws he signed providing "curriculum transparency" for parents in Florida.
"As long as I have breath in my body, I will go out and I will fight for Ron DeSantis, not because he's my husband — that is a part of it — but it's because I believe in him in every ounce of my being," she said, adding later that DeSantis "will ensure parents have the rights to be able to make the decisions that they think best for their family."
Casey DeSantis' elevated profile, and the focus on their roles as parents to three young children, have been a big part of Ron DeSantis' pitch to GOP primary voters. The heavy family focus ties into the basis for his "culture war" battles, like his claims about the "sexualization" of children by corporations and. The theme seemed to resonate with Iowa parents in Johnston, who found the DeSantises "relatable."
"Knowing they are going through the same struggles, and delving in the same issues that we're in as a family, raising young kids, that creates an element of relatability to them for us," said Adam Conn, a DeSantis-leaning voter who attended Thursday's event with his wife and four young children.
Shellie Flockhart, an undecided voter and member of a local "Moms for Liberty" chapter, said the fact that Ron and Casey DeSantis have younger children, and Casey DeSantis' "mama bear" instinct helps give the campaign "an edge."
Thursday's event, Casey DeSantis' first solo public event, marked the campaign's launch of the "Mamas for DeSantis" program, aimed at replicating the statewide "Million Mama Movement" initiative she led in Florida to win support for her husband's successful gubernatorial reelection campaign in 2022.
In Iowa, Casey DeSantis called the program "the largest mobilization of moms and grandmothers across the United States of America to protect the innocence of our children and to protect the rights of parents."
In a digital video accompanied with the program's launch, filled with clips of shutdowns and mask-wearing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Casey DeSantis says in a voiceover that "we have finally found our fighter."
Ron DeSantis often highlights actions he's taken as governor through the "lens of a dad." His political brand is tied to the Parental Rights in Education Act, the bill passed in 2022 that now restricts lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity through the 12th grade, and was dubbed by critics the "Don't Say Gay" bill.
At a press conference in February, standing in front of packaged boxes with diapers, DeSantis announced a tax relief package that removed sales tax for baby and toddler supplies like strollers, cribs and diapers. He brought up that tax exemption during a June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Even in discussing foreign policy, DeSantis recently made the connection to his young kids when talking about increasing manufacturing in the U.S., instead of buying products made in China.
"My wife and I, when we get our kids Christmas presents, and then the stuff made in China breaks, it's like you can't even last two days after Christmas without the toys breaking and so it's really, really cheap stuff," he said during a town hall in Eagle Pass, Texas, in late June.
Ron DeSantis spotlighted his children periodically in his first gubernatorial bid in 2018, too. One campaign ad featuring his young children highlighted his support for then-President Donald Trump, at one point showing a clip of his daughter building a "wall" with toy blocks.
DeSantis campaign spokesperson Andrew Romeo said about the focus on his family in the governor's presidential campaign, "Like most working parents in this country, the Governor and the First Lady feel disturbed by the harm Joe Biden's leftist policies have caused children in our country."
Romeo added that in Florida, DeSantis "delivered the most pro-parent agenda in the country. He is running for president to do the same for all of America."
The current movement and influence of conservative parents over the cultural issues popular with the GOP base and at the core of DeSantis' 2024 pitch has been growing in recent years.
The slogan "Parents Matter" and the push for parental influence over school curriculums and COVID-19 measures, was central to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin's successful 2021 run.
Moms for Liberty, a "parental rights" group that the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled an "extremist group," was founded in Florida in January 2021. The group, which has referred to DeSantis as the "Parents' Governor," hosted him, Trump and several other GOP presidential candidates at an annual summit in late June. Several in the crowd for Casey DeSantis on Thursday were wearing "Moms for Liberty" T-shirts.
"I think what we've seen across this country in recent years has awakened the most powerful political force in this country: mama bears, and they're ready to roll," Ron DeSantis said during his speech at the summit on June 30.
Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Iowa-based conservative Christian group "The Family Leader," said there's "no doubt" that Casey DeSantis' roles in the public sphere and as a mother to young children help the governor's campaign with the crucial evangelical community in Iowa, and particularly with suburban "soccer moms."
"If you're talking about education at any level, and you have young children going through the system or needing to be educated, people right away understand there's authenticity because you have skin in the game," he said.
State Rep. Jon Dunwell of Newton, Iowa, said there is a contrast with DeSantis' portrayal of a tight nuclear family and other Republicans in the race, like Trump.
"You just don't have all that baggage that we see sometimes with President Trump," Dunwell said of DeSantis, whom he has endorsed. "There's a lot of things that, as a follower of Christ, I just wasn't comfortable with in terms of his personal life. Doesn't mean it disqualified him from being president, but how we are behind closed doors does tend to come out in the public square."
At least two other GOP presidential candidates, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, have young children and have talked about them on the campaign trail. Other candidates, like former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have also brought up their adult children during their campaigns.
The last four Republican nominees all had teenage or adult children by the time they began their campaigns. Trump's children were adults by the time he began his 2016 presidential campaign, with the exception of his youngest son Barron Trump, who was 9. Trump's adult children campaigned on his behalf, and he even made his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, senior White House advisers in his administration.
The youngest son of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, was 30 years old at the start of his bid. The late John McCain, the Arizona senator and 2008 GOP presidential nominee, said during his campaign that he thought it would be "inappropriate for us to mention our children." His youngest daughter was 16 when he launched his campaign. The rest of his children, including Meghan McCain, who blogged about the campaign, were adults.
Former President George W. Bush's two twin daughters were 17 years old when he launched his bid in June 1999.
Former President Barack Obama's children were 7 and 10 years old when he first moved into the White House in 2009 and grew up there during his two terms. In addition, during his 2020 presidential campaign, President Joe Biden would talk often about his family, including his two children who died before his successful presidential bid.
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