Vander Plaats has been openly critical of Donald Trump, the runaway Republican polling leader in Iowa and nationally, and had long been expected to back DeSantis. An influential activist with an active Christian conservative following, he has supported the last three winners of contested GOP caucuses — though none of them went on to win the Republican nomination, underscoring the tough path forward for DeSantis even if he does well in the Hawkeye State.
It’s unclear whether the endorsement will help DeSantis reverse months of struggles. Once seen as someone who could challenge Trump’s dominance in the party, DeSantis has fallen behind in the polls. In Iowa, he is now battling for a distant second place with former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. And beyond Iowa, Haley has in many ways pushed past DeSantis to become the top Trump alternative in the race.
Vander Plaats, who is president of a conservative Christian group, could help the Florida governor with social conservatives in Iowa. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), talk show host Steve Deace and much of the statehouse have also endorsed DeSantis — collectively testing whether conservative leaders in the GOP’s first nominating state can make any dent in Trump’s commanding lead.
Evangelical Christians have made up almost two-thirds of Iowa GOP caucusgoers in past years, and DeSantis is appealing heavily to that demographic. He’s visited with church leaders, embraced six-week abortion bans, and campaigned on his policy fights over sexual orientation and gender identity, issues that animate many evangelical activists.
He’s also spent time with Vander Plaats’s group, the Family Leader, which advocates “biblical values” in government. That includes opposing abortion and any policy that, in its view, “encourages” people to identify as transgender or have same-sex relationships. DeSantis got an enthusiastic reception at the Family Leader’s 2024 forum last week.
Vander Plaats has become a fixture of presidential politics in Iowa, hosting candidate forums and typically issuing an endorsement close to the caucuses. A former candidate for governor, he was a state chair for Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign in 2008; endorsed Rick Santorum in December 2011; and in late 2015 backed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex), who went on to beat Trump in Iowa before losing the GOP nomination.
Vander Plaats is part of a political network that DeSantis’s team hopes will help them exceed expectations.
Other Republicans, however, say that Vander Plaats’s influence is overstated — or grumble about the money his organization raises from candidates and their allies. Trump’s campaign responded to Vander Plaats’s endorsement with statement that stylized his name with a dollar sign.
Vander Plaats said on Fox News that multiple candidates have paid the Family Leader to be promoted in programs but said that does not sway his endorsement decision.
He also said that while evangelical voters had “great admiration” for the former president, he thinks many also want to “turn the page” and are “exhausted” by Trump’s indictments and focus on the past.
Trump, well aware of Vander Plaats’s criticism, has snubbed his events this year, including a “Thanksgiving forum” Friday, which was attended by DeSantis, Haley and a third 2024 hopeful, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Trump has also clashed with Vander Plaats and other faith leaders on the issue of abortion. Even though he appointed three Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade — and has touted that on the trail — Trump has started to criticize six-week bans passed by Republicans in states such as Iowa.
On Tuesday, just ahead of Vander Plaats’s endorsement, Trump’s campaign announced its own endorsements from more than 150 faith leaders.
Despite alienating prominent conservatives — and attacking Reynolds, the governor — Trump led the pack in Iowa by nearly 30 points in a recent poll from the Des Moines Register and partners. DeSantis and Haley were tied for second at 16 percent.
The Iowa caucuses will kick off the GOP nominating process on Jan. 15. New Hampshire’s primary will follow on Jan. 23, and South Carolina is set to hold its Republican contest on Feb. 24.