By Nathan Layne and Alexandra Ulmer
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (Reuters) – Before Donald Trump stepped on stage for a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in early December, several leaders joined him in a prayer on behalf of a candidate whose latest presidential quest they see as a mission ordained by God.
“The gates of hell will not prevail over him,” Iowa state legislator and pastor Brad Sherman told the prayer circle. “There is a great victory coming for this nation and the world because of the calling you’ve placed on this man.”
That moment, captured in a video that went viral, was orchestrated by an aide just a few years out of college who has been locking in the crucial Iowa evangelical vote for Trump.
Since joining the campaign in September as Iowa director of faith outreach, Jackson Lane, the 25-year-old son of prominent Christian activist David Lane, has rounded up key endorsements and shored up evangelical support, helping the Trump team blunt a push by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to win over conservative Christian voters with his hard-line stances on abortion and other issues.
Evangelical voters make up more than half of the Republican electorate in Iowa, whose population is around 90% white and where the caucuses on Jan. 15 kick off voting in the Republican primary race.
Trump narrowly lost Iowa in 2016 to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who had focused on the religious vote. Trump’s rivals this time around have failed to cut into his lead in the state, which could be one of their few chances to stop his march to the nomination to take on Democrat Joe Biden in November 2024.
Despite his three marriages and dozens of criminal charges since losing the 2020 presidential election, Trump drew first-choice support from 51% of evangelical voters in the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released on Monday.
That’s in line with his 51% support from likely Republican caucus goers overall.
DeSantis had 19% support from likely caucus goers and Nikki Haley, who was the United Nations ambassador under Trump, got 16%. The margin of error was 4.4 percentage points.
Lane, whose involvement in the Trump campaign has not been previously reported, has logged more than 1,500 phone calls seeking endorsements from faith leaders and holds weekly prayer sessions with those who have backed Trump, according to a person familiar with the matter who declined to publicly disclose internal campaign information.
Many of his recruits are planning to double as precinct captains, organizing in their community ahead of the vote and speaking for Trump at their local caucuses, the person familiar with the matter said. The Trump campaign declined to comment on Lane’s activities.
In an interview in October, Lane emphasized Trump’s accomplishments for evangelicals, with the undoing of a federal right to an abortion at the top of the list.
“Trump was the most pro-life president ever,” Lane told Reuters. “Just look at what he’s done. The man is a rock star when it comes to evangelicals and speaking to that base.”
Several Iowa faith leaders said they believed Trump was chosen by God for this turbulent time in American politics.
Trump’s personal touch has also helped.
When Sherman, the state legislator who led the December prayer, lost his adult daughter earlier this year, Sherman said Trump called to offer condolences.
“It was very sincere. So I texted him a link to the obituary. He texted me back and said: ‘I showed this to Melania and she cried,'” said Sherman, who has helped Lane contact pastors.
PASTORS FOR TRUMP
Courting ministry leaders comes naturally to Lane. His father runs the American Renewal Project, a nonprofit that recruits pastors to run for local, state and federal office with the aim of shaping government to Christian principles. The elder Lane says he considers homosexuality a sin.
David Lane told Reuters that Jackson started door-knocking for conservative campaigns after high school and continued while at Missouri Baptist University. “I’m proud of him. I haven’t been involved,” the elder Lane said of his son’s work for Trump.
Jackson Lane also worked as a field organizer for Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign in Arizona, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Lane went on to work as a personal assistant for Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia and was pardoned by Trump in 2020.
Lane handled daily logistical tasks and traveled with Flynn, who emerged post-pardon as the leader of a far-right movement aiming to put Christianity at the center of American life. Flynn did not respond to requests for comment.
Joseph Hall, a longtime Trump supporter and the pastor at Crossroads Church, an evangelical church in Council Bluffs, Iowa, said he jumped at an invitation from Lane to speak at a Trump rally in Sioux City. The army veteran said he believed Trump had “done more for the faith than any other president in our time.”
His endorsement got the attention of congregant James Goar, a 40-year-old construction worker who has never voted in the Iowa caucus and said he is now leaning towards Trump.
Four other Crossroads members, speaking after a recent Sunday service, agreed with Trump’s claims that the criminal cases against him were driven by partisan animus and enabled by a biased media and dismissed concerns about his personal conduct. Trump faces charges tied to his efforts to reverse his 2020 defeat, an attempt culminating in the Jan. 6, 2021 assault by his supporters on the U.S. Capitol.
Rather than calling for specific policies in a second term, they said they trusted that Trump would generally pursue policies that benefited Christians. They all declined to share their names, citing concerns about bias in the mainstream media.
DeSantis has continued trying to make inroads with evangelical voters, including frequent stops at small, rural churches.
In November, he announced the support of more than 100 Iowa pastors and faith leaders, although that trails the more than 250 endorsements disclosed by Trump this week.
Josh Bingaman, pastor at First Church of the Open Bible in Des Moines, said he has met with Lane multiple times but plans to caucus for DeSantis, whose campaign he believes has shown a greater commitment to the faith community.
“I think he’s done a great job, but he is all by himself,” Bingaman said of Lane.
Despite Trump’s large polling advantage, political consultant David Kochel, who is not involved with any of the campaigns, thinks DeSantis’ faith outreach and Florida’s six-week abortion ban will win over some of the evangelical vote.
Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader who has endorsed DeSantis, also sees hope, citing the abortion ban and the connections the Florida governor has made across the state.
Trump called the Florida abortion ban “a terrible thing,” a remark that drew rebukes from some evangelicals, and has attacked Iowa’s popular governor, Kim Reynolds, for supporting DeSantis.
Haley, who has discussed her Methodist faith on the campaign trail, does not have as robust a network of evangelical supporters in Iowa as Trump or DeSantis.
She did, however, score a major endorsement from Iowa evangelical activist Marlys Popma.
At crowded Trump rallies, though, his rivals are an afterthought.
Wearing a hat reading “JESUS IS MY SAVIOR, TRUMP IS MY PRESIDENT,” Stan Herndon said Trump not folding in the face of four criminal trials was evidence of a grander plan.
“We believe that he’s annointed by God,” Herndon said.
For 2024 US election stories, results and data: https://www.reuters.com/topic/event/us-elections/
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco. Additional reporting by Gram Slattery in Waukee, Iowa.; Editing by Colleen Jenkins)