By Alexandra Ulmer and Joseph Tanfani
(Reuters) – As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis scrambles to shore up his struggling run for the Republican presidential nomination, he has spent far more than any rival on courting an influential Christian conservative leader and his following in the key early voting state of Iowa.
Trailing far behind former President Donald Trump in national polls and beset by turmoil in his campaign, DeSantis and his advisers are spending heavily in Iowa in hopes of stalling Trump’s momentum by beating him in the state’s caucuses on Jan. 15, where Republicans begin to choose their next presidential nominee. The state’s influential evangelical voting base is crucial to that strategy.
The DeSantis campaign, a super PAC linked to him and a nonprofit group supporting him together paid $95,000 in recent months to the Family Leader Foundation, an Iowa-based nonprofit led by evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, according to campaign finance reports and a document prepared by an Iowa state lawmaker who was helping the Vander Plaats organization raise money for a July 14 presidential candidate forum.
The document and the amount spent by DeSantis and his allies are previously unreported.
For that money, DeSantis and supporting groups got three pages of advertisements in a booklet distributed at the July forum attended by 2,000 Christian conservatives, and tickets to the summit, lunch and an after-dinner event.
But the real value may be more in building a relationship with Vander Plaats, whose endorsement is coveted in the early-voting state, said three campaign finance experts and an academic who studies Iowa campaign spending.
Vander Plaats and his group are leaders in the state’s Christian conservative movement, which has enormous political influence in Iowa. Roughly two-thirds of the state’s Republican caucus-goers in 2016 identified as evangelical, according to pollsters Edison Media Research.
“It’s a lot more money” than you typically see allocated in Iowa, said Steffen Schmidt, an emeritus political science professor at Iowa State University who studies political spending in the state. “It is a large amount for a very limited exposure in a booklet and for a single event,” he said.
In emailed comments to Reuters, Vander Plaats said the charges were “not even close to exorbitant” for the chance to be promoted before an audience of nearly 2,000 “engaged grassroots activists” at a forum that received extensive national political coverage.
“My only regret is that we probably should have charged more,” he said.
A spokesperson for DeSantis, Andrew Romeo, said the campaign was “proud to sponsor an ad with one of the largest and most effective social conservative groups in the state of Iowa.”
Vander Plaats, 60, has deep influence in the conservative and religious midwestern state. The last three Republican presidential candidates he endorsed – former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in the 2008 election, former Senator Rick Santorum in 2012 and Senator Ted Cruz in 2016 – won the Iowa caucus but did not go on to win the Republican nomination.
In 2010, the year he took charge of the Family Leader group, he led a campaign that unseated three Iowa Supreme Court justices who had voted to overturn the state’s gay marriage ban.
He has said publicly that he could endorse someone near the end of the year besides Trump, who he has publicly criticized.
Vander Plaats said there was no link between money and his endorsement. “My endorsement has never been and never will be for sale,” Vander Plaats said. “My only interest is in bold, courageous, principled leadership for this country.”
But the cost to appear in the Vander Plaats’ group booklet in July was substantially above the prices of similar events.
Another religious advocacy organization, the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, also sponsors a forum for presidential candidates each cycle, scheduled this year for Sept. 16 in Des Moines. That event charges attendees $75 per ticket. Candidates can buy sponsorship packages ranging from $500 to $5,000, said the group’s president, Steve Scheffler.
At the higher end, Scheffler said, candidates get more seats, a mention in the program as a sponsor and a table to hand out literature. He said the group covers most of the cost from donors, not from candidates. Scheffler said he does not endorse anyone.
Vander Plaats has long touted the power of his endorsement. In a 2015 email sent to a conservative group and reviewed by Reuters, he took credit for Santorum winning in Iowa in 2012. “We endorsed Rick Santorum and he stormed to a caucus victory due to our base of supporters,” Vander Plaats wrote.
“Vander Plaats clearly understands his political power, his kingmaker status in Iowa, and how thirsty candidates are for his endorsement,” said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer who worked previously at two nonpartisan campaign finance watchdogs, Common Cause and the Campaign Legal Center.
A spokesperson for the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, Jess Szymanski, said they had “proudly sponsored” the summit, “like every other participating political organization.”
Neither the DeSantis campaign nor Never Back Down answered detailed questions from Reuters, including whether the payments were meant to influence an endorsement decision.
The states in the Republican nominating calendar that vote after Iowa, including New Hampshire and Nevada, look more unfavorable to DeSantis, putting pressure on his team to deliver an upset win in Iowa that would revive their flagging campaign.
The fundraising document, reviewed by Reuters, lists contacts at Republican presidential campaigns, super PACs and other groups supporting the candidates, and details how much each was willing to spend ahead of the mid-July Family Leader forum, among the largest gatherings of social conservatives in Iowa before the caucuses. Six Republican presidential candidates spoke at the event.
A note at the top of the document says it was created by a Republican state representative, Jon Dunwell, who was helping raise money for Vander Plaats’ group. Dunwell referred a request for comment to Vander Plaats, who said Dunwell had been paid as an “independent contractor” since June.
According to the Vander Plaats’ group fundraising document, the DeSantis campaign paid $25,000 to the organization for its ad in a commemorative booklet distributed at the event and an invitation to a special after-event dinner with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
A political nonprofit backing DeSantis, And to the Republic, agreed to buy a table at the after-event dinner for $20,000, the document said. Representatives of the group did not return requests for comment.
Never Back Down paid for a two-page advertisement and dinner tickets for $50,000, according to the document and the group’s filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and a group allied with Senator Tim Scott, another Republican candidate, spent $25,000 each on ads in the commemorative booklet, campaign finance reports and the document show. Tricia McLaughlin, a senior advisor to Ramaswamy, said they paid for advertising because the Vander Plaats event does “a remarkable job of rallying conservative caucus-goers.”
A spokesperson for Scott referred questions to the pro-Scott super PAC, Trust In The Mission. A spokesperson for Trust In The Mission declined to comment.
Some candidates balked at the expense.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, a devout evangelical, declined to contribute. “There was a request for a large contribution for sponsorship, which we declined,” said Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff and a campaign advisor. “We didn’t think that was the best use for our donors’ money.”
The six candidates who attended the summit were not charged a fee, and those who did not pay for the booklet were also free to mingle with caucus goers. All six were interviewed by Carlson.
An examination of campaign finance filings shows that presidential candidates and supportive groups have been contributing to the Vander Plaats organization since at least 2011. Before this year, the largest contribution appears to be from the Patriot Voices super PAC, founded by Santorum and his wife, Karen. Patriot Voices sent the Family Leader organization $25,000 in 2012.
Santorum said in an email to Reuters that he and his wife founded the PAC after he dropped out of the race in order to support a grassroots movement of “pro-family conservatives.”
Trump did not attend last month’s event in Des Moines. That was Trump’s loss, Vander Plaats said in a post on the messaging platform X, formerly known as Twitter. He added that it “becomes more clear…people want to turn the page.”
A spokesman for Trump declined to comment.
Vander Plaats, meanwhile, has been making positive comments about presidential candidates Ramaswamy, Haley and Scott — and especially DeSantis. On Aug. 6, Vander Plaats said he and his wife attended church with DeSantis and his wife, Casey.
“They’re very easy people to be around. You like being around them,” Vander Plaats said on conservative podcast host Steve Deace’s show on Monday. “If the caucuses were held today, I don’t believe Trump wins. I think it’s probably DeSantis that wins.”
(Alexandra Ulmer reported from San Francisco. Joseph Tanfani reported from Washington. Additional reporting by Jason Lange. Editing by Jason Szep)