DeSantis touts backing from faith leaders as he seeks to woo religious conservatives

Some of his GOP rivals, like Pence, have also made religion a major theme.

September 14, 2023, 11:08 AM

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is ramping up his courtship of religious conservatives, announcing dozens of endorsements from pastors in crucial nominating states and making several faith-focused appearances this weekend as he campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination.

DeSantis on Thursday unveiled a "Faith and Family Coalition," which his campaign said consists of more than 70 faith leaders in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. This week while in New York, he met with several religious leaders, including a group of Orthodox Jews and Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York.

This weekend in Washington, D.C., and Iowa, the governor will also make faith the centerpiece of several appearances, including one in Des Moines where he will be joined by several people who have independently alleged discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs.

While other prominent Republican candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence, have sought to define their candidacy in part based on their deep faith, DeSantis' supporters argue he has an opportunity.

"The faith lane in this race is wide open, and we're going to go take it," a source familiar with the campaign's strategy told ABC News.

Still, polls suggest DeSantis faces steep challenges as he attempts to win over Iowa evangelicals, a voting bloc seen as crucial to performing well in the state's January caucuses. The results there could reshape the GOP primary.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at the 2023 Christians United for Israel summit on July 17, 2023 in Arlington, Va.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at the 2023 Christians United for Israel summit on July 17, 2023 in Arlington, Va.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images, FILE

Former President Donald Trump -- who continues to lead DeSantis by double digits nationally in early states, according to FiveThirtyEight -- also led DeSantis among evangelical Christians in Iowa 47% to 20%, an August Des Moines Register/NBC News poll found.

Some key Christian leaders in the state, nevertheless, have shown openness to supporting non-Trump candidates.

Des Moines pastor Mike Demastus, one of the people joining DeSantis at the Saturday event -- a "God over Government" rally co-organized by the grassroots group Faith Wins -- told The Des Moines Register in May that Trump was "shooting us literally in the kneecaps" by blaming the lackluster Republican performance in key states in last year's midterm elections on anti-abortion candidates.

"We're the people that are supposed to be turning out for this man. And so he is a really odd duck, you know what I mean? And so for us in the evangelical community, that's why many of us are like, 'Yeah, let's look at some other guys,'" Demastus told the paper.

DeSantis, a practicing Catholic, held his first in-person event as a presidential candidate at an evangelical church in a Des Moines suburb and has since kept faith included in his pitch to Iowa Republicans.

The governor has not been immune to resistance from religious leaders in his home state, however, as a progressive synagogue in South Florida sued the state last year over its 15-week abortion ban.

The suit, filed by Congregation L'Dor Va-Dor, argued that the law violated the Florida Constitution's right to privacy and religious freedom. The state Supreme Court is currently reviewing a similar challenge to the ban brought by abortion providers.