COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA — Ron DeSantis hopes all Evangelical voters eventually see him the way Monica Morrison already does.
The 66-year-old retired Air Force veteran, after attending a DeSantis political rally last week in a hot, crowded reception on the state’s western edge, compared the governor to Moses.
“He stands for the moral integrity of what God has ordained,” said Morrison, who wore a “DeSantis 2024” sticker and talked in detail about DeSantis’ record as governor, including his decision to ban gender-affirming care for children.
“We have a moral decline that’s going on in this country,” she added. “And we need somebody who’s gonna stand against the moral decline that we’ve seen.”
DeSantis and his fledgling presidential campaign are now making a concerted effort to earn the support of more people like Morrison — even if the competition for the Evangelical vote is fierce and the governor’s message, especially when it comes to his own faith, is unconventional.
In an effort that began years ago and accelerated as he prepared to run for president, DeSantis has forged personal relationships with Evangelical leaders and begun layering his speeches with Biblical allusions.He even held his first in-person campaign event last Tuesday at a conservative church near Des Moines, where he spoke from a stage where a pastor normally spreads the Gospel every week.
All of it represents a multi-pronged campaign to win over Evangelical voters, who make up the largest and most influential group of voters in the GOP Iowa caucuses and traditionally make or break campaigns in the GOP primary’s first nominating caucus.
Evangelicals made up 64% of Iowa Republican caucus-goers in 2016, according to entrance polls.
“The people that are in power now do not like people of faith,” DeSantis said last month, addressing the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. “And so we have to get this government under control. We have to make sure that the bureaucracy is reconstitutionalized and that ultimately the government is returned to its rightful owners, we the American people.”
The governor told the convention that his first act as governor in 2019 was to have his son Mason baptized.He recounted how at least two of his children were baptized with water from the Sea of Galilee, where the Bible says Jesus conducted much of his ministry in what is present day Israel.
Competition and Courtship
Conservative leaders in Iowa are quick to caution that DeSantis, who only recently became a candidate, has a lot of work to do to win over religious voters, many of whom have only a passing familiarity with the governor. And they say that, for many of those voters, former President Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the GOP nomination, remains deeply popular.
As if to underscore that point, Trump arrived in Iowa a day after DeSantis left, meeting last week with local pastors and holding a town hall with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“We have a real lovefest with the faith leaders of Iowa, and the faith leaders throughout the country,” Trump told CBS News last week, reminding listeners that the Supreme Court justices he appointed as president helped overturn the Constitutional right to an abortion.
Trump isn’t DeSantis’ only rival for the Evangelical vote. As he traveled across Iowa last week, news broke that former Vice President Mike Pence — whose piety is central to his public identity — is also entering the race, planning to announce his campaign in Iowa this week. Other GOP candidates, like U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, have also begun overtly courting the state’s religious vote.
To stand out against the competition, DeSantis has spent time developing relationships with local Evangelical leaders in the state. Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, estimated he has spoken and met with the governor a half-dozen times since 2021, including when he and his wife dined with DeSantis and his wife, Casey, in Tallahassee earlier this year.
The conversation, he said, touched on how the DeSantis family had grown more religious since Casey was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I think that was a time of growing for both him and for her and solidifying their faith,” Vander Plaats said during an interview from the Family Leader headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa. “When you’re confronted with your own mortality, it’ll do that to you.”
In an interview last week on Fox News, DeSantis referenced how “power of prayer” lifted the spirits of both he and his wife after her breast cancer diagnosis.
It remains uncertain if that personal relationship will earn DeSantis an endorsement from Vander Plaats, who has backed the last three winners of the Iowa caucus. The social conservative leader declined to offer his support for the governor but did say he would be making an endorsement later this year, likely sometime after mid-November.
On the campaign trail, DeSantis often mentions his record on issues of importance to Evangelical voters and social-issue conservatives, including his approval of a six-week abortion ban, opposition to “gender ideology” in schools and women’s sports, and the fight he more broadly wages against what he calls the “woke mind virus.”
Starting last year, he also began mixing more overtly religious language into his speeches, making references to “the full armor of God” that faith experts say will speak to the most ardent Christians.
In his campaign kickoff speech near Des Moines last week, the governor closed his speech with an allusion to a Biblical verse from Paul the Apostle, arguing he will see the GOP primary through to the end.
“Together we will fight the good fight,” DeSantis said. “We will finish the race and we will keep the faith.”
But although Vander Plaats and other Republicans acknowledge he often mentions religious themes in his speeches, his public remarks less regularly reference his own religion or how faith shapes his life.
At the same kickoff event, in fact, the governor — who is Catholic — made only passing mention of God and avoided discussion altogether of his own faith. He mentioned the Bible once, in reference to the instruction that leaders be humble and acknowledge the contributions of other people.
An approach from DeSantis that eschews discussion of his own faith would be a major departure from past Iowa caucus winners. In 2000, for example, George W. Bush made his conversion to Born Again Christianity a central part of his political biography. In 2008, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee won the caucuses in part because of his own background as a pastor. Rick Santorum was not a pastor, but he won the caucasus four years later, in 2012, after speaking often about his religious convictions.
The winner of the last competitive Iowa GOP caucuses, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016, had a father who was an Evangelical pastor and often stylized his speeches as a sermon.
“I’ve been to early Cruz events and been like, ‘Is this a church service, or is this a political event?’” said Craig Robinson, a longtime Republican strategist in Iowa.
Huckabee and Santorum events had the same feel, he added.
Whether a more open discussion of faith is necessary for DeSantis is a subject of speculation among Republicans in the state. Trump, of course, went on to win the GOP nomination in 2016 even though he was open about how little a role faith played in his life. The former president, after winning the party’s nomination, ultimately won Evangelicals’ loyalty with promises to support their policy objectives, like appointing conservative Supreme Court justices or moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
DeSantis’ record in office could be enough, say some conservatives.
“The Scripture says very clearly that you can judge a person by their fruits,” Vander Plaats said. “And so when you take a look at the fruits of his leadership, he probably doesn’t feel like ‘I need to just talk be talking about my personal faith.’”
Some Republicans say the governor’s promise to fight the political left, in this era where some voters view political fights as existential, might be enough.
“He is courting a certain type of voter in the state, and so how he does that will be interesting,” Robinson said. “I’m curious, is being anti-woke, is that all you need to be anymore?”
Many GOP leaders in Iowa, however, did not think that DeSantis being Catholic would prove a hindrance to winning over Evangelical voters, pointing out that Santorum, who is also Catholic, won the caucuses in 2012. The differences between different religious denominations have faded in recent decades, they say, amid a decline in religious participation and increased secularism on the left.
Back in Council Bluffs, Morrison didn’t appear to care about the governor’s Catholic faith or the lack of overt religious discussion in his stump speech. She and her husband, 79-year-old Tom Morrison, were one of 500 or so Republicans who tolerated the sweaty conditions — the reception hall didn’t have air conditioning — to get a glimpse of the governor and absorb his message to voters.
Morrison, who lives in a nearby suburb of Omaha, Neb., said DeSantis’ record in Florida was the most important part of his appeal, at least to her.
“He stood against the immorality in his state,” Monica Morrison said. “And that’s what we like about that.”