(Jake Bevan, RealClear Wire) The 2024 Republican hopefuls gathered at a fundraiser here Saturday, looking for inroads with Iowa’s highly influential evangelical voters as primary season enters full swing. Packed more than 1,000 strong into a sports-complex-turned-banquet hall just west of Des Moines, the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition hosted eight presidential wannabes who outlined their battle plans for promoting Christian values, protecting the right to life, and curtailing “woke” ideology in the government and in the classroom. Dinner was – what else? – Chick-fil-A.
Among the roster of speakers was a former vice president (Mike Pence), a former governor (Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas), a current U.S. senator (Tim Scott), media personality Larry Elder, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and business executive Perry Johnson.
Conspicuously absent was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has yet to officially announce a run but who polls show may be the most formidable contender against Donald Trump for the GOP nomination.
The former president addressed the crowd at the end of the night via a pre-recorded video message in which he thanked supporters and boasted of his record while in the White House, before recommitting to many of the promises he made to Iowa voters last month in Davenport.
Although white evangelicals supported Trump overwhelmingly in the general election in 2016 and 2020, their relationship with Trump this time around may not be a foregone conclusion – especially in the primaries. It was Sen. Ted Cruz, and not Trump, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2016, and he did so on the strength of support for Christian conservatives The lineup of Republicans willing to run against Trump in 2024 knows they must pry significant swaths of evangelicals away from Trump in order to succeed.
And despite Trump’s frontrunner status – polls show him running far ahead of the other challengers – Saturday’s event comes two days after the former president was denounced by a prominent pro-life group for refusing to support a federal ban on abortion (Trump’s team has insisted it be left to the states). Although Trump’s video did include a declaration that “every child, born and unborn, is a gift from God,” the prospect of a federal ban went unmentioned.
One candidate happy to press that issue is Trump’s former sidekick. A devout evangelical himself, Mike Pence spent his time on stage emphasizing the role of faith in both his personal upbringing and his politics. Concrete policy proposals numbered few, but the former vice president did notably make the case that two of the right’s most labor-intensive issues can be consolidated into one.
“The battle against radical gender ideology is a battle for religious freedom,” he told attendees.
Pence has only gradually warmed to the task of taking on his former running mate, but he opted to save his most direct language for off-stage on Saturday. Speaking to reporters, Pence echoed disappointment in Trump’s refusal to support a federal abortion ban.
“I don’t agree with the former president, who says this is a states-only issue,” he said. “We’ve been given a new beginning for life in this country. I think we have the opportunity to advance the sanctity of life.”
Pence is not the only evangelical Christian offering himself as an alternative to Trump in this field, and other speakers sought to draw their own distinctions with the leading candidate, too. As a native of the Deep South, Tim Scott placed great emphasis on his own faith but also positioned himself as a sort of living antidote to woke ideology.
“My life disproves the lies of the radical left,” he declared.
Also notable was Vivek Ramaswamy, who, at 37, hopes to emerge as the Millennial alternative. He’s different in other ways, too. A Hindu in a sea of conservative Christianity Saturday night, he won an enthusiastic standing ovation from Iowa’s largest evangelical interest group for his time on stage discussing how to combat the “moral vacuum” that has consumed his generation.
“When you have a hole the size of God in your heart, and God doesn’t fill that, something else will instead,” he explained. “That is what’s happening with woke-ism.”
Although the actual voting remains eight and a half months away – and despite the absence of DeSantis and Trump (and Nikki Haley) – the strong turnout at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition event demonstrates that Iowa evangelicals are once again poised to flex their electoral muscle in the nation’s first contest in January.