Despite RNC warning to candidates, Family Leader plans to hold forum as planned

By: - November 9, 2023 5:46 pm

Nikki Haley takes the stage at the Family Leadership Summit, July 14 in Des Moines (Photo by Jay Waagmeester/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Republican National Committee has warned 2024 presidential candidates that speaking at the Family Leader’s Thanksgiving forum will prevent them from participating in future Republican presidential debates. But the Family Leader plans to move forward with the event, staff said Thursday, with at least three candidates who have confirmed they will attend.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have all told the Family Leader that they plan to be at the Des Moines event Nov. 17, which advertises itself as a space for presidential candidates to “gather around the table to have a moderated, friendly and open discussion about the issues that are most important to evangelical Americans today.”

Though it is not a debate, the Family Leader has set polling thresholds for participation, requiring candidates to have a Real Clear Politics polling average of 4% or more in national or Iowa polls by Nov. 1. Along with the three candidates planning to attend, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former President Donald Trump are eligible to participate, and have been invited, Drew Zahn, director of communications for the organization, said.

Haley is expected to attend, Zahn said, but “Trump’s reluctance to participate in other events leads us to believe he will not accept the invitation.”

Trump has skipped many typical caucus campaign stops like the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, often choosing to hold his own separate rallies instead of appearing at events with other presidential candidates. This campaign style extends beyond Iowa: As 2024 candidates gathered for the third GOP presidential debate in Miami Wednesday evening, Trump held a rally 15 miles away in Hialeah, Florida.

An October letter from the RNC counsel to presidential candidates, first reported by Real Clear Politics, said the Family Leader’s planned round-table discussion of political issues is, “in other words, a debate.”

“Please be advised that any Republican presidential candidate who participates in this or other similar events will be deemed to have violated this pledge and will be disqualified from taking part in any future RNC-sanctioned presidential primary debates,” the counsel’s letter continued.

The RNC has a fourth debate scheduled for Dec. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Family Leader staff say the RNC’s characterization is incorrect, disagreeing with the RNC’s position that the forum counts as an unsanctioned debate.

“In fact, have we held this same event twice before – in 2011 and 2015 – so we know from experience our event can be a win-win addition to the election process without in any way competing with the RNC’s debates,” Zahn wrote. “It’s just a completely different format and kind of event.”

The recent action from the RNC is not the only scrutiny the Family Leader has faced in recent weeks. On Tuesday, a Trump pollster released a memo to supporters and donors downplaying the influence of Bob Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of the Christian conservative organization.

Though Vander Plaats has yet to endorse any candidate in the 2024 Republican presidential field, the poll concluded that the Evangelical leader choosing to back DeSantis ahead of the Iowa caucus would not hurt Trump’s lead in Iowa. In previous years, Vander Plaats’ endorsement and Family Leader events have played an important role in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses. He endorsed the eventual caucus winners in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

Though he has not endorsed a candidate, he has spoken against Trump winning the Republican nomination again in 2024. Vander Plaats said on social media that the Make America Great Again Inc. super PAC poll shows that Trump’s lead in Iowa is not as strong as he claims.

“If they’d ask me, I’d tell them my endorsement is worth one vote,” he wrote on X. “Mine. Their obsession with my potential endorsement highlights the fragility of their lead.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.