“I am thrilled to throw my personal endorsement and support behind Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida,” Vander Plaats said in an interview on Fox News.
Vander Plaats is considered a kingmaker in Iowa. He worked on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign when Huckabee won the GOP caucuses that year. In 2012 and 2016, Vander Plaats endorsed former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, respectively — both of whom won the first-in-the-nation contest.
Evangelicals and born-again Christians are a key voting group in Iowa, having accounted for about two-thirds of Republican voters in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, according to an NBC News entrance poll that year. Cruz outperformed Donald Trump by 12 percentage points among evangelical voters on his way to a narrow victory in Iowa, the survey found.
On the campaign trail in New Hampshire just hours before Vander Plaats’ endorsement, DeSantis said he’s winning over Iowa evangelicals.
“I think that if you saw that Family Leader forum, clearly his folks there gravitated to me. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” DeSantis said, referring to a candidate event this month hosted by Vander Plaats’ organization.
DeSantis added that he has “a good relationship” with Vander Plaats and that “Bob has been somebody that has been very vocal about Donald Trump is not going to be the way forward.”
Vander Plaats’ relationship with Trump has been frosty since the run-up to the Iowa caucuses in 2016, when the two regularly exchanged barbs in heated Twitter exchanges. Eight years on, they are still at each other’s throats.
Just hours before he endorsed DeSantis, Vander Plaats criticized Trump on X. Responding to a video posted by the Trump campaign, showing the former president excoriating Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for endorsing DeSantis, Vander Plaats wrote: “While disappointing… Exceptionally revealing. #LookHigher #ThinkBigger #ExpectMore when it comes to selecting our next president. #ChooseWell2024.”
The Trump campaign, in response to DeSantis’ recent endorsements in Iowa, said, “Kim Reynolds’ endorsement won’t save Ron DeSanctus, and neither will Vander Plaat$’ endorsement.”
Signs have been pointing toward Vander Plaats’ endorsing DeSantis for months now.
Moderating a conversation among DeSantis and two of his Republican opponents — entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — Vander Plaats asked each to address what he said were their biggest “hurdles” in the eyes of Iowa voters he’d spoken with.
For Haley, he said it was the perception among conservatives that she was in favor of weakened abortion restrictions. Ramaswamy, a practicing Hindu, was pressed about his faith. DeSantis, however, faced an easier line of questioning.
“Why is this your time?” Vander Plaats asked him, adding that polls have often found that DeSantis is the second-choice candidate among Trump supporters.
Vander Plaats’ apparent backing of DeSantis at the event wasn’t lost on some audience members.
Josh Rouser, 32, of Waverly, said after he attended the candidate forum that while Haley and Ramaswamy were well-received, “it did feel like it was the DeSantis show tonight,” noting that his supporters were by far the most vocal.
DeSantis crossed paths with Vander Plaats twice in the week leading up to Tuesday’s endorsement. The day after the Family Leader forum, Vander Plaats delivered remarks at a fundraising gala for the anti-abortion rights group Pulse Life Advocates.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in the next couple of months we have an opportunity to choose — and to choose well — a champion for the sanctity of human life,” he said in remarks that stopped just short of an endorsement.
Speaking to NBC News in July, Vander Plaats gave a glowing review of DeSantis’ performance as governor of Florida.
“He’s showing a lot of signs of he’s playing to win. And so, I think he’s a very, very real candidate to be an Iowa caucus winner,” he said at the time, while offering the White House hopeful some advice.
“The closer he can marry himself to Governor Reynolds, emulate Governor Reynolds, that would bode very, very well for him,” he said, referring to Iowa’s popular second-term Republican governor.
That marriage has since been made official, politically speaking. After he appeared alongside Reynolds on the campaign trail at least eight times since he announced his White House bid in May, DeSantis secured her endorsement at a rally in Des Moines this month. Reynolds, who broke with the state’s tradition of the governor’s remaining politically neutral before the caucuses, painted DeSantis as a proven leader with a strong record in Florida that could be reproduced nationally.
The DeSantis campaign, with significant help from the super PAC Never Back Down, has visited 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties — a statewide tour colloquially known as the “Full Grassley,” after Chuck Grassley, the senior U.S. senator who popularized the practice.
On paper, DeSantis has made significant strides in running a traditionally successful Iowa campaign by racking up influential endorsements and dedicating significant time and financial resources to the state. But it remains unclear whether the playbook will be enough to overcome Trump’s commanding lead in the polls.
An NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom survey last month found DeSantis significantly trailing Trump’s commanding 43% support, with DeSantis and Haley tied at 16%.