Capital Clicks

Trump super PAC downplays an Iowa endorsement that hasn’t happened yet

By: - November 7, 2023 5:15 pm

Bob Vander Plaats is CEO of The Family Leader, a conservative advocacy organization. He appeared July 9, 2021, on “Iowa Press.” (Screen shot from Iowa PBS)

A top Iowa evangelical leader, Bob Vander Plaats, has not yet endorsed a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, but the super PAC supporting former President Donald Trump is already downplaying the effect of his choice.

Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Christian conservative organization The Family Leader, has made it clear in interviews and social-media posts that Trump is not his choice for president. A pollster for the Make America Great Again PAC asserting this week that Vander Plaats’ influence would not be enough to curb Trump’s lead in the Iowa GOP caucuses.

The memo from Tony Fabrizio, first published by the Des Moines Register, was sent to donors and supporters Monday as popular Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds officially announced her endorsement of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The backing of Reynolds is an important win for DeSantis, who trailed Trump by 27 percentage points in the most recent Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll, and tied with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley for second place.

While Iowa governors typically do not endorse a party nominee before the caucuses, other influential figures in the state — such as Vander Plaats — do. Vander Plaats, and the Family Leader, have often played an important role in vetting presidential candidates ahead of the GOP caucuses. Presidential candidates have traveled this year to speak to Iowa conservatives at the Family Leadership Summit, an event that gave presidential hopefuls a chance to appeal directly to Iowa evangelicals.

Vander Plaats’ support has also played an important role ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses. He endorsed the eventual winners of the Iowa caucuses in multiple recent GOP nomination cycles — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008.

Though Vander Plaats has welcomed presidential hopefuls to Iowa this cycle, he has not backed any specific candidate. But he has repeatedly warned Republicans against supporting one competitor: Trump.

The conservative religious group leader has said Iowa evangelicals appreciate what Trump accomplished as president, such as nominating the U.S. Supreme Court justices who were key in overturning Roe v. Wade. But he told CNN in September that many Iowans also are “exhausted” by the former president.

“Iowa is tailor-made to upend Trump,” he said in the interview. “If he loses Iowa, there’s a competitive nomination process. If he wins Iowa, I think it’s over.”

But Trump backers said in a memo that Vander Plaats has “no significant impact” on the Iowa caucuses. Poll results released by Fabrizio’s consulting firm found a majority of likely GOP caucusgoers have “no opinion” or have not heard of Vander Plaats.

The poll also asked respondents who they plan to support in the caucuses, and who they would support if Vander Plaats endorsed DeSantis. In both polls, Trump came out on top, earning the support of 45% of respondents in the initial question and 42% after being asked about the potential endorsement. DeSantis won 15% in the initial ballot and 14% following the endorsement in the poll.

The poll was conducted Sept. 17-19, surveying 500 likely Republican caucusgoers. The interviews were conducted 40% by phone and 60% by text messages, and the results have a margin or error of plus or minus 4.38 percentage points.

Vander Plaats responded to news of the poll Tuesday, saying in a social media post that he was “flattered” by the poll.

“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.”

Trump has been invited to the Thanksgiving Family Forum hosted by the Family Leader, planned for Nov. 17 in Des Moines. DeSantis, Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have also been invited to speak at the event.

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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.