TALLAHASSEE — Courting evangelical voters in early nominating states, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is looking to become politically reborn – turning his struggling Republican presidential bid fully toward faith-based conservatives.
DeSantis has unveiled endorsements from dozens of pastors and religious activists and spent last weekend campaigning at several Iowa social conservative events, including the state’s major Faith and Freedom Coalition fall banquet.
Leaning into his record in Florida, DeSantis touted having signed a ban on most abortions after six-weeks – a measure whose fate will soon be decided by the state’s Supreme Court, where five of the seven justices are appointees of the governor.
The ruling could help loosen former President Donald Trump’s powerful grip on evangelical voters, DeSantis supporters say. Trump holds a 30% lead in Iowa over DeSantis and a 42% margin nationwide among GOP voters, according to Real Clear Politics’ poll averages.
But even as DeSantis was training his focus on evangelicals, Trump called the governor’s signing of the six-week law “a terrible mistake,” heightening the divide between the former president and his closest rival for the GOP nomination.
Among likely Republican voters in Iowa’s first-in-the nation caucuses in January, 80% described themselves as “pro-life” in a recent survey. DeSantis is selling himself to these voters, based on his Florida record.
"We've also in Florida not just given lip service but we've put our money where our mouth is when it comes to promoting a culture of life,” DeSantis told the Concerned Women for America's Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., last week, before heading to Iowa.
“We signed the Heartbeat Protection Act ... the strongest protections for right to life in the modern history of the state of Florida,” he added. “We've also stood up very strongly for religious liberty,"
DeSantis portrayed faith-based voters as constantly under attack.
"One of our most foundational freedoms of all, the freedom to practice our faith, is coming under assault by leftist elites all across the country," DeSantis said, adding "there is a better way forward... if we make the right choices over these next 18 months."
Iowa looks make or break for DeSantis
But DeSantis is mostly focused on January – and the Iowa caucuses, where he desperately needs to emerge as a viable alternative to Trump. DeSantis’ once promising campaign has cut staff, blew through money and changed campaign managers as the governor’s poll numbers fall further behind Trump.
But abortion, and social conservative voters, now may prove a political lifeline.
DeSantis’ strict abortion stance is out-of-step with polls in the U.S. and Florida, which show most voters support keeping abortion generally legal. But among Republicans, a majority of voters say they want a candidate who will fight against abortion rights.
Still, many Republicans acknowledge their party is alienating many voters, especially suburban women, with the strict abortion position.
Trump has told allies he sees the abortion issue as hurting Republican candidates. And he may have handed a political gift to DeSantis in Iowa during an appearance Sunday on NBC-TV's Meet the Press when he said of the governor’s six-week ban, “I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
“You’re not going to win on this issue,” Trump said.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who DeSantis has said he’d consider as a running mate, also recently signed a six-week abortion law.
'Tailor-made' for Trump defeat
“I think Iowa is tailor-made to defeat Trump here in the Iowa caucuses, and I believe this adds to it,” Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, an Iowa social conservative organization, told the USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida.
“I believe DeSantis and others are doing everything right... they’re building an organization that can deliver on caucus night. I wouldn’t let the poll numbers basically sway anybody at this point,” added Vander Plaats, who plans to endorse a Republican candidate around Thanksgiving.
Vander Plaats said Republicans appreciate what Trump did as president, particularly with the naming of three U.S. Supreme Court justices who helped overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973.
But he said many GOP voters are now “exhausted” by Trump and may be ready to move on.
Vander Plaats has endorsed the last three winners of the Iowa caucuses, none of whom went on to become the GOP presidential nominee. DeSantis’ campaign this summer poured $95,000 into the Family Leader Foundation for advertising, tickets and events surrounding a July forum which Vander Plaats’ organization sponsored.
Justices asked to reverse on privacy Abortion access on the line in Florida before DeSantis-heavy Supreme Court
Waters prove deep for Florida candidates Like earlier Florida presidential hopefuls, DeSantis struggling in deep political water
Trump has stayed away from the evangelical events in Iowa attended by DeSantis and many of the large field of other Republican contenders.
But the former president is stepping up his focus on Iowa, with two appearances Wednesday in the state. He is also spending $700,000 on advertising there this week, according to AdImpact, the tracking firm.
Some Trump advisers have said he is seeking to end DeSantis’ campaign in Iowa by clobbering the governor in the nominating contest.
DeSantis abortion stance gives him edge, supporters say
Florida anti-abortion advocates say DeSantis has gained an edge over Trump on the issue.
“These comments, among the pro-life movement, are really going to cause a sea change,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, which championed the state’s six-week law.
“A lot of people just want to be entertained and feel like somebody is behind them and fighting for them,” Stemberger said of Trump. “But issues matter, and this is the defining issue, or should be, for Christians and social conservatives.”
Florida’s current abortion law prohibits the procedure in most cases after 15 weeks of pregnancy. That law, which took effect last year, was argued earlier this month before the state Supreme Court, with Planned Parenthood affiliates saying it violates Florida’s constitutional right to privacy.
The court in 1989 said that privacy right safeguards abortion. But the conservative, DeSantis-heavy court is being asked to revisit that ruling and now determine that the voter-approved privacy law was never intended to protect abortion access.
Florida lawmakers, anticipating that justices will side with the state’s arguments, last spring approved the six-week law, which will go into effect one month after a court ruling stripping away privacy protections.
The timing of the court’s decision could help DeSantis grab another headline underscoring his support for abortion restrictions, closer to the January caucuses in Iowa.
“Unfortunately for Floridians, their right to have the freedom to make their own private health care decisions has become just another pawn in Ron DeSantis’ political ambitions,” said Anders Croy, spokesman for DeSantis Watch, a website critical of the governor that is backed by progressive nonprofit organizations.
But Croy said a proposed constitutional amendment affirming the right to abortion in Florida could share space on next November’s presidential ballot. The campaign is currently gathering signatures to put before voters a measure that could restore abortion access in Florida.
“While the governor may believe that a ruling upholding his abortion ban in Florida will be a political win for him with far-right voters in Iowa, the fact is that Floridians will have the final say next year when they enshrine abortion rights into our state constitution,” Croy said.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Ron DeSantis courts evangelicals on abortion as he struggles in polls