Influential Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats endorses Ron DeSantis

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Family Leader's Thanksgiving Family Forum, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Iowa evangelical leader, endorsed Ron DeSantis for president Tuesday, boosting the Florida governor as he goes all in on the leadoff caucus state in an effort to trip up Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

Vander Plaats is the second major backer DeSantis has picked up in Iowa this month, joining popular Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Evangelicals are a crucial voting bloc in Iowa's Republican caucuses. Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, has endorsed the eventual winner in every GOP caucus since 2008 and is potentially jeopardizing his streak by picking DeSantis, who trails far behind Trump in polls. His decision will test his sway among Iowa evangelicals, many of whom continue to support Trump.

If Trump wins Iowa, he'll probably go on to be the nominee, “but I don't think America is going to elect him president again," Vander Plaats told Fox News host Bret Baier.

“I think America would be well served to have a choice, and I really believe Ron DeSantis should be that guy,” he said. "And I think Iowa is tailor made for him to win this. ”

He pointed to DeSantis' decisive victory in his 2022 Florida re-election and his success enacting conservative legislation.

Vander Plaats, who is prominent in the anti-abortion movement, has questioned the former president's commitment to an abortion ban. While Trump's three Supreme Court appointments enabled the high court to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion last year, Trump has faced blowback from anti-abortion-rights activists for refusing to commit to national abortion restrictions and for calling Florida's signing of a six-week ban on the procedure a “terrible mistake.”

A majority of U.S. adults want abortion to be legal at least through the early stages of pregnancy, according to a July poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

DeSantis has infused his campaign with religious rhetoric and persistent outreach to white evangelicals but has said little about how he practices his own Catholic faith. He met with Vander Plaats earlier this year in Tallahassee, the Florida capital.

In response to the Vander Plaat's endorsement, Trump's campaign said the former president is backed by more than 150 faith leaders in Iowa and implied that DeSantis paid for the endorsement.

“Kim Reynolds’ endorsement won’t save Ron DeSanctus, and neither will Vander Plaat$’ endorsement,” the Trump campaign statement said, using a nickname Trump commonly uses for DeSantis. Vander Plaats said his endorsement is not for sale and payments from DeSantis backers to his organization were for ads at a candidate forum in July.

Trump also posted a video on social media in which he goes after Reynolds for endorsing DeSantis and expresses his former administration's support for Iowa farmers.