Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is seeking to peel away evangelical Christian support from former President Trump as the group is set to play a pivotal role in the 2024 Republican primary.
The competition for the voting bloc was on full display this week in Iowa, where DeSantis held his campaign launch at Eternity Church in Clive. The Florida governor’s moves come as some evangelicals have criticized Trump’s stance on abortion.
“He appointed three Supreme Court justices that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but since that time, his stance on the sanctity of human life has been unclear. It’s been very nuanced,” Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa evangelical political activist who endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2016, told The Hill on NewsNation earlier this week. “I think what voters want to hear is clarity on that issue. Not nuance.”
And DeSantis’ allies are taking note. On Thursday, the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down rolled out an ad in Iowa hitting Trump for saying last month that the six-month ban on most abortions that DeSantis signed into law in Florida was “too harsh.”
“The pro-life community expects better than that,” Vander Plaats is heard saying in the spot.
But despite the criticism the former president has received from figures in the anti-abortion movement, he is still highly regarded by evangelical voters.
“We’ve seen over the last five to six years Trump has a very strong hold and a very strong footing with the evangelical base,” said Melissa Deckman, CEO at the Public Religion Research Institute. “White evangelical Protestants have stuck by Donald Trump through a myriad host of events including a pandemic, including Jan. 6, including trials we’re hearing about.”
Trump retains evangelical backing
A Monmouth University poll released earlier this week showed Trump leading DeSantis by 28 points among self-described evangelical voters in a head-to-head matchup in May. The latest polling is a jump for Trump among the voting bloc. In a head-to-head matchup with DeSantis in March, Monmouth found Trump leading by 9 points among evangelicals. In February, the same poll showed Trump trailing DeSantis with the voting bloc by 7 points.
The voting bloc boosted the former president in the 2016 and 2020 general elections. According to exit polling conducted by Edison Research, 80 percent of White evangelical Protestants voted for Trump in 2016, while 76 percent backed the former president in 2020.
“At the end of the day, there is one man responsible for overturning Roe v. Wade and it’s Donald Trump,” said Robert Jeffress, an influential evangelical pastor and senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas. “Had there been no Trump presidency, Roe v. Wade would still be the law of the land, and I think in the final analysis that’s what evangelicals are going to remember.”
Jeffress told The Hill that he has supported Trump since the summer of 2015 and that he does not “foresee any reason I would be abandoning Trump.”
Pastors differ on Trump’s abortion stance
Other pastors say they are still meeting with the 2024 GOP contenders as they make their way through early contest states like Iowa.
Terry Amann, who is the pastor at the Church of the Way in Des Moines, met with Trump and other pastors during the former president’s visit to the Hawkeye State on Thursday.
“He was very gracious to everyone,” Amann told The Hill.
Amann said the group of pastors “encouraged” Trump to take a stronger stance on abortion going into 2024.
“There was an expression of concern that his position on abortion, that he’s not standing as strong as he had in the past,” Amann said. “His response was the same as it’s been. In his mind ‘Well, there’s political realities out there and I get what I can get.’”
Amann said that the group appreciates what Trump has accomplished so far on abortion, but he added “as evangelical pastors, we’re just going to always press for a total ban.”
Jeffress, who has also spoken with the former president, said he understands where Trump is coming from in terms of how far he goes politically on abortion restrictions.
“I’ve talked with him about it,” Jeffress said, “I don’t think he’s soft on it at all, but I think he realizes that if you’re going to have a national policy, there’s going to have to be some compromise. Nobody likes to use the word compromise.”
DeSantis could make gains
Republicans were hit hard on the issue in last year’s midterm elections. Democrats used abortion to go on the offensive in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia, and they found success.
Anti-abortion advocates, in turn, have pointed to victories seen by governors with anti-abortion stances like DeSantis. The Florida governor signed the state’s six-week abortion ban after his reelection in 2022.
“The other thing [evangelicals] really put into play is, ‘Can you win?’ And not just win the primary, but can win the general election,” Vander Plaats, who has not endorsed a candidate, said in an interview with The Hill. “I think that is Trump’s highest hurdle and I think DeSantis is saying, ‘Listen, I barely won Florida in ’18. I won it in a landslide in ’22. We made inroads into demographics that typically don’t vote conservative.”
And while Trump has strong support from evangelicals, polling shows that DeSantis is viewed favorably by the group, which could give him an opening.
A survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute in March found that 36 percent of white evangelicals said they viewed DeSantis favorably, while 26 percent said the same about Trump. Deckman noted that in March more voters were unfamiliar with the Florida governor.
“I think many of Ron Desantis’ policies in Florida are targeted to win the support of base voters in the GOP, especially cultural conservatives and white evangelicals,” Deckman said. “I think the question will be is it enough to pull support away from Donald Trump.”
And there are numerous other Republican candidates who are looking to peel away Trump’s support among evangelical voters and the primary base as a whole, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Former Vice President Pence, who is set to formally enter the race on Wednesday, has a particularly strong following among evangelical voters.
“Of all of the candidates running against Donald Trump, he probably has the greatest chance of peeling away some of the evangelical vote, much more so than DeSantis or Haley or any other contender,” Jeffress said. “That being said, it’s still going to be an uphill struggle for Mike Pence or anyone going against the juggernaut known as Donald Trump.”