Trump and Iowa evangelicals: A bond that is hard to break

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – When Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina returns to Iowa on Wednesday, he will meet privately with a group of clergy at a Cedar Rapids church.

For anyone considering the Republican presidential campaign, the visit is part of a decades-old courtship ritual in the state that kicks off the nomination process. Born-again Christians are the most influential group in Iowa’s GOP caucus, helping faith leaders organize voters and shape outcomes.

But in the early stages of the next presidential campaign, Scott’s joyous declarations of his Christian faith face an unexpected obstacle. Like other Republicans eyeing the White House, he is navigating an evangelical community loyal to former President Donald Trump, the thrice-married former reality television star who once supported abortion rights. and had spent decades boasting of his sexual prowess.

That history held back many evangelical leaders in Iowa during the last competitive Republican caucuses in 2016, when they helped Texas Sen. Ted Cruz win the early contest. As the 2024 campaign begins, however, many of those same leaders are open to Trump, grateful for his judicial appointments that resulted in the abolition of the constitutional right to abortion.

They are unimpressed by the controversies surrounding Trump, including a 34-count New York felony indictment against him last week stemming from payments made to porn actor Stormy Daniels, who accused him of having an extramarital affair. was accused.

“I believe, and I think many evangelical Christians understand, politics at that level is a blood sport. Donald Trump is fighting. That’s why he worked,” said Rev. Terry Amann of suburban Des Moines. “So, it’s not our role to judge him.”

Trump has denied having an affair with Daniels and has characterized the allegations — as well as ongoing investigations related to other cases in Georgia and Washington — as politically motivated. But evangelical support reflects a broader dynamic taking hold, with the GOP base rallying around Trump after his indictment even amid signs that he could be vulnerable to the broad public in a general election.

An ABC News/Ipsos poll released late last week found that 50 percent of Americans thought Trump should be charged with a crime and nearly 48 percent said he should suspend his campaign. But only 14% of Republicans said he should be indicted.

FILE – Sen. Tim Scott speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 30, 2021 (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

The GOP’s loyalty to Trump was evident in interviews with more than a dozen Iowa pastors in the wake of Trump’s impeachment. Each cited Trump’s role in helping to overturn Roe v. Wade for long-term rethinking about them since his first campaign. Many also pointed to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city.

“I appreciate the fact that, for what seems like the first time in my lifetime, someone did what they said they were going to do,” said Rev. Kerry Zech of Marshalltown. “With Donald Trump, he delivered on what he promised us. It’s something I just can’t get away from.”

In a new display of pragmatism, Jakes and others like him who didn’t support Trump in 2016 say the former president is no less imperfect now, but his actions on policy could elicit questions about his moral character.

During the 2016 campaign, Rev. Mike DeMastus of Des Moines endorsed Cruz and called Trump “morally abhorrent,” “evil” and “a reprehensible person.” Today, DeMastus calls him “the most pro-life president I’ve ever seen”, and would consider supporting him in caucus with others.

Even Demastus’ qualified endorsement still puts Trump in a better position than in his first bid.

Former US President Donald Trump appears in court for his arraignment Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in New York. (Steven Hirsch via AP Photo/Pool)

In a March Des Moines Register Iowa poll, Trump was viewed favorably by 58% of Evangelicals, unfavorably by 39% and 3% were unsure. On the eve of the 2016 caucuses, Iowa Evangelicals had an ambivalent view of Trump. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa poll, taken on the eve of the caucus, showed Trump with the support of only 19% of evangelicals, with Cruz holding 33%.

The awkward situation is new for Iowa’s social conservatives, who have had three consecutive Republican presidential campaigns that have backed a decidedly more outspoken evangelical candidate, though none would go on to win the nomination.

Beyond Cruz, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won the 2012 caucus as a crusader anti-abortion. In 2008, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, scored a surprise victory by bringing together a Christian coalition of pastors and religious home-school advocates.

Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence hope to repeat their success in 2024, should they announce plans to run. It’s a strategy pioneered by former Christian broadcast personality Pat Robertson, whose focus on Iowa’s network of evangelical Christian churches helped him finish a surprising second in Iowa’s 1988 caucuses, ahead of Vice President George HW Bush.

Scott, who is launching an exploratory committee for the president, has already met several times with Iowa pastors, as has Pence. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to run, attended a backstage meeting and prayer with a handful of clergy after a public event in Des Moines last month.

The first multi-candidate meeting of the 2024 Iowa caucus campaign is scheduled for later this month and the presidential hopefuls are expected to speak to Pence, Scott, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and hundreds of Iowa social conservatives. Trump plans to address the group by video.

The more traditional approach set against the unusual combination of Trump’s accomplishment and high-drama personal life creates a new dynamic for Iowa’s social conservatives to weigh.

“President Trump has stood up for values ​​that we hold dear,” said Brad Sherman, a pastor from Williamsburg and Republican state representative who plans to endorse Trump in caucus. “Then we need to pray for him that his personal life is in line with that.”

Others say that forgiveness is offered to all.

“He is not a perfect man. No one would say that. He is no King David,” said Rev. Bill Tevet of Oskaloosa. “But David was also tempted.”

Tveidt also compared Trump to the Biblical figure Cyrus, who was not a Christian but is lauded as an Old Testament hero for freeing the Jews from Babylonian captivity. “He’s a Cyrus, more of a keeper,” Tevet said.

The Rev. Dave Martin, a Marshalltown pastor, was an outsider in interviews that suggest Trump’s judicial strategy was intended in 2016 to consolidate support within the skeptic group.

The Rev. Kerry Zech of Marshalltown, Iowa, talks with State Representative Bill Gustoff, right, Thursday, April 6, 2023, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Niebergel)

“Let’s not forget that many years ago he was for legal abortion,” said Martin, who says he will not support Trump in caucus.

Martin also fiercely criticized Trump’s 2016 campaign statement when he dismissed the need to repent.

“If I am not making mistakes then why do I need to repent or ask for forgiveness?” Trump asked CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a 2015 interview. “I work hard. I am a respected person.

Amann, the suburban Des Moines pastor who dismissed Trump, said the former president only needs to worry about evangelical support if his resolve to his priorities weakens.

“If he backs out of pro-life, it will be a big issue,” Aman said.

Demastus, once a Trump adversary, was quick to remind that Trump blamed staunch abortion opponents for Republicans’ weaker-than-expected performance in last year’s congressional elections. Specifically, Trump said that candidates who opposed legal abortion in cases of rape or incest, or to save a pregnant woman’s life, “lost a significant number of votes.”

Demastas said, “It made me feel bad.” “There’s the part of him I’m talking about where he needs to keep his mouth shut.”