The Vander Plaats primary is about to get its biggest test

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in Iowa, is widely expected to endorse Ron DeSantis in the presidential primary.

At this point, that’s a big gamble.

Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, has picked correctly in every recent GOP primary, backing Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012 and Ted Cruz in 2016. All three won Iowa but went on to lose the primary.

But now, with Donald Trump dominating the field, he is poised to back a candidate who is running 30 points behind the frontrunner here — testing not only the clout of his own endorsement, but the willingness of evangelicals to abandon Trump.

“Bob normally rushes to the front of the parade toward the end of the caucus campaign,” said GOP operative Doug Gross, who was chief of staff to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and plans to caucus for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. “In this case I think he’s trying to move the parade, and that’s much more difficult to do.”

For DeSantis, Vander Plaats’ support — on the heels of the recent endorsement of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds — would offer a boost to his campaign as he seeks to erode Trump’s lead in the Hawkeye State. He is banking his White House aspirations on a solid performance in Iowa, amid dismal polling in New Hampshire and Haley’s ascent.

But for Vander Plaats, endorsing DeSantis poses a risk. He is all but certain to further anger the former president and overwhelming frontrunner — some of whose supporters have taken to derisively calling him “Vander Poop.”

And he is in danger of parting ways with evangelical Christians who support Trump over more religious candidates like DeSantis, even as Trump continues to skip events hosted by the Family Leader, denigrates strict abortion bans that evangelicals hold dear and espouses the kind of menacing language Vander Plaats ridiculed at his “Thanksgiving Family Forum” on Friday night in Des Moines.

Despite it all, evangelical Christians continue to support Trump.

As he interviewed DeSantis, Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy in a Marriott ballroom, Vander Plaats acknowledged as much.

“The Iowa poll came out; showed you a distant second,” Vander Plaats told DeSantis. “You dig deeper into the poll and you see that you are the second choice for Trump voters and your voters — the second choice is Trump. And so the biggest comment or the biggest question is, why doesn’t he just wait his turn?”

Masked as a challenge, the question provided DeSantis an opportunity to provide his closing argument to the approximately 800 people in attendance.

“We’re a republic. It’s not about waiting your turn,” DeSantis said to applause. “We are in jeopardy of turning over to the next generation of Americans an America less prosperous and less free than the America we inherited.”

He peppered his answer with criticisms of Trump, from his failure to deliver on 2016 campaign promises like building a Southern border wall, to concerns over his viability in a general election, to his penchant for “entertainment.”

But DeSantis and his rivals tacitly recognized Trump’s popularity a few minutes later. When Vander Plaats asked each to describe “the greatest moral threat we face as a country,” none mentioned the 91 felony charges facing Trump or the former president’s false insistence that the 2020 election was rigged.

DeSantis’ performance earned him plaudits from some pastors in the audience who plan to participate in Iowa’s caucuses on Jan. 15.

“It was definitely DeSantis’ night,” said Mike Demastus, executive pastor of Fort Des Moines Church of Christ. “He had the most deliberate and effective answers. He got the largest applause.”

Demastus said he has yet to decide on his preferred candidate and called Vander Plaats’ likely endorsement “the worst-kept secret in Iowa politics.”

Earlier this week, CBS reported that DeSantis told fundraisers he expects Vander Plaats’ endorsement within a week of the summit, which the DeSantis campaign denied.

DeSantis’ operation — which has said it would be satisfied with a strong second-place in Iowa — has poured more money into ads in Iowa than any of his rivals, by far. As of ad buy tallies on Friday, DeSantis and the super PAC all but running his campaign have bought nearly $19 million in ads here through the caucuses, according to AdImpact.

“DeSantis is having a good resurgence in Iowa,” said GOP operative David Kochel, who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns in Iowa. “If he’s going to compete to win Iowa, this is the coalition he needs.”

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