DeSantis makes big bet with evangelicals in GOP presidential primaries
DeSantis makes big bet with evangelicals in GOP presidential primariesHaisten Willis
May 26, 05:30 AM May 26, 05:30 AM
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has worked to position himself as a better version of Donald Trump, but he’ll lean on key differences with The Donald to court one of the GOP’s most important voting blocs.
DeSantis has embraced a firm pro-life policy stance and highlighted, subtly, his status as a solid family man, both of which contrast sharply with the Republican front-runner.
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“One of the things I’m most proud of is that the state of Florida stands unequivocally in defense of the family and in defense of our children,” DeSantis told a gathering of Christian broadcasters Monday night. “And we have done more to protect children than any state in the country. Of course, just a short few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to sign the heartbeat bill, which is the strongest pro-life bill Florida has seen in its modern history.”
The remarks were delivered in Orlando at the National Religious Broadcasters convention before thousands of Christians in the media.
DeSantis’s embrace of a six-week abortion ban is a sharp contrast with Trump, who forged an uneasy alliance with evangelicals en route to winning the White House in 2016 but has since kept his distance by embracing a hands-off “states right” stance.
In his speech, DeSantis also touted Florida legislation that increases support for a pregnancy support services program, along with efforts to give parents greater access to and influence in local schools. One of his favorite phrases is “education, not indoctrination.”
All of that could be a boost for DeSantis as he attempts to pry evangelical Christian voters away from his top GOP rival.
“You cannot win Iowa without the support of conservative evangelicals,” said Drake University political professor Dennis Goldford, who has written a book on the Iowa caucuses. “They are an essential Republican constituency.”
Trump left a big opening to his right when he indicated he would not support a six-week abortion ban, Goldford argues, which DeSantis walked into by signing one into law in Florida. That will give him a chance with evangelical voters, who make up roughly half of Iowa Republicans, when they vote next January.
DeSantis has already made stops in the state, hanging out with Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) and Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-IA). But Goldford, who has witnessed every Iowa caucus since 1988, says that facing voters one-on-one still matters a lot in the Hawkeye State and that doing so is not a strength for DeSantis.
“One of the good things about the caucuses is they make candidates treat voters as real human beings and not just campaign props for photos,” he said. “You have to be able to look somebody in the eye and win them over with your charm, and by all accounts, DeSantis struggles with that.”
Along with policy, DeSantis may be able to use his background and personal life to his advantage.
Unlike Trump, DeSantis is a military veteran, serving in the U.S. Navy as a legal adviser to SEAL Team One before being deployed to Iraq. And DeSantis remains married to his first wife, Casey DeSantis, in contrast to the thrice-divorced Trump.
Those factors can aid the Florida governor to an extent, argues Cedarville University political professor Marc Clauson, so long as he’s careful about bringing them up.
“DeSantis can talk about his military service, but I think he has to wait for the occasion to come to him rather than being proactive about it,” he said.
And when it comes to his family, Clauson says DeSantis would do best simply being seen and photographed with them rather than bringing the issue up directly.
DeSantis has alluded to Trump’s moral failures before, reacting to the Manhattan district attorney’s charges against Trump by saying he doesn’t know much about “paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”
That led to a harsh response from Trump, who hasn’t stopped attacking DeSantis since and has been widening his lead in the polls.
Other candidates have attacked DeSantis as well, including former Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC) and even President Joe Biden. DeSantis has mostly shied away from punching back directly, but that could change now that he’s officially in the race.
A Catholic himself, DeSantis alluded to the battle ahead by quoting from the New Testament’s Book of Ephesians during his Monday speech.
“Get ready. Put on the full armor of God,” he said. “Stand up for your faith, and don’t ever, ever back down.”