DES MOINES — If ever there was a political bloc that could be counted on to hold a candle for Donald Trump, it would seem to be white evangelical Christians, who maintained a near-uniform front for the Republican throughout his presidency and beyond.
Yet, as some 1,200 evangelicals gathered here for the Family Leadership Summit, widely seen as the first political event on the long road to the 2024 Republican primary, there was a feeling among some that it was time to move on.
“I agree with pretty much everything Trump did on policy as president, but I don’t think it would be good for him or good for the country if he ran again,” said Ken Hayes, a retired nonprofit worker from rural Fort Dodge, who said he prayed for Trump every day the man was in office.
Held in the Des Moines convention center, the daylong event is considered a key preview of how would-be candidates resonate among social conservatives, who dominate the Republican caucuses here. It featured appearances from former vice president Mike Pence, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem.
To be sure, there was plenty of praise for Trump, and more than a few attendees said they have his back as he continues to make baseless claims about the 2020 election.
But in interviews with 15 people at the conference, all of whom voted for Trump, none said they hoped the former president would run again.
“I am interested in who comes next,” said 58-year-old Cheryl Prall.
Trump himself has remained largely focused on bogus audits in states he lost to President Biden. Denied access to major social media platforms, most days he churns out press releases complaining about the election and those he feels have slighted him. On Friday alone, he released at least four press statements on the topic through his political action committee.
But for Mary Bloom, a 55-year-old homeschooling parent who attended Friday’s event and believes some of Trump’s claims about the 2020 election, “It is what it is and we all need to move on to the next election.”
Indeed, while Iowa traditionally grants winners of the first-in-the-nation contest momentum in the presidential race, in 2024 it could do something else: show that the party is moving on. That subtext was apparent in speeches on Friday.
Pence talked repeatedly about “our administration” with Trump and said being his vice president was “the greatest honor of my life.” Yet he also bashed the Biden administration, setting up a possible 2024 battle cry.
“After 177 days of open borders, higher taxes, runaway spending, defunding the police, abortion on demand, censoring free speech, canceling our most cherished liberties, I’ve had enough,” said Pence to applause.
Pompeo brought up how Trump called him in January after a major news outlet said he was Trump’s most loyal Cabinet member. But he mainly focused on his own story and time as secretary of state. Noem didn’t mention Trump at all, and instead focused on her time as governor and her refusal to lock down her state during the pandemic.
“A lot of the people I’m talking to sort of realize that 2020 happened and we need to focus on 2024 if we’re going to get anything done, because worrying about the past isn’t going to help,” said Ronald Forsell, the Republican Party chair in Dallas County, a fast-growing suburban county.
Despite his popularity with evangelicals, Trump initially did not win over the voting bloc here in 2016. Instead, this network of pastors and homeschooling parents helped give Iowa Caucus victories to Texas Senator Ted Cruz over Trump in 2016, and before that to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in 2012.
But the adulation for Trump here is not in doubt. A Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll last month found that 84 percent of Iowa Republicans said they would vote for Trump again for president.
And when Iowa Republican Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann was asked in an interview if Trump would win the next Iowa Caucuses, he said, “I believe he would, yes.”
Still, Republicans thinking about running for president are coming in droves to Iowa and New Hampshire, the pair of states that are expected to once again hold the first contests of the 2024 presidential race.
This was Pompeo’s second trip to Iowa this year. Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley spoke at a major Iowa Republican Party fund-raiser two weeks ago. Next month, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio will visit just days apart. And on Saturday, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas is set to attend events in New Hampshire.
At none of these stops does anyone say they are running for president. Indeed, they wave off the question, in part because of the legal paperwork required of being an official candidate and in part to avoid Trump’s ire for as long as possible.
Kaufmann, the party chair who has talked privately to many potential candidates, said that none of them raised the prospect of Trump running again or even whether they were waiting for him to make a decision.
David Kochel, a veteran Iowa Republican consultant, said that should Trump run, he would “without a doubt” win the Iowa Caucuses. Yet, he says there is “plenty of space” for other candidates to visit and quietly lay the groundwork for their own campaigns.
“The base doesn’t know what Trump is going to do either,” said Kochel. “Everyone is in the same boat to see whether he will run. And who knows where we will all be in six months.”