GOP candidates court Iowa evangelicals at Faith and Freedom … – Des Moines Register

Ten Republican presidential candidates took the stage Saturday night as the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual fall banquet kicked off in downtown Des Moines.
Evangelicals have been a particularly influential group of caucusgoers in past years, typically showing up to caucus in above-average proportions and making up well over half the electorate.
Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition President Steve Scheffler said on a recent taping of Iowa Press that his organization is “a matchmaker, not a kingmaker,” letting members choose their favorite.
One candidate who was notably absent: Former President Donald Trump is a no-show, despite his popularity with Iowa evangelicals.
Here’s what has happened:
Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley told the crowd, “you have to speak hard truths” when it comes to the issue of abortion and that the American people “deserve the truth.” 
“I am unapologetically pro-life, not because the Republican Party tells me to be but because my husband was adopted, and I had trouble having both of my children. I am surrounded by miracles and blessings,” she told Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition during the banquet’s last sit-down interview. 
Haley, who during the GOP presidential debate last month shared similar sentiments, explained that a federal abortion ban would need the majority of the House, 60 Senate votes and a president’s signature. 
“We haven’t had 60 Republicans (in the Senate) in over 100 years. We might have 45 pro-life senators,” she said, “so no Republican president can any more ban abortions than a Democrat president can ban those state laws.” 
Haley added her goal is to support moms, save as many babies as possible and continue to “humanize” the issue. 
“The way we do that is to bring people together,” she said to a quiet crowd. “Can’t we all agree that we should ban late-term abortions? Can’t we all agree that we should encourage adoptions and good quality adoptions? Can’t we all agree that doctors and nurses who don’t believe in abortions shouldn’t have to perform them?”
“And can’t we all agree that no woman who has an abortion should get a prison sentence or the death penalty?” she added. “Let’s start there.” 
During the interview, Haley also recounted one of the toughest moments she faced while serving as the governor of South Carolina: the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. 
“This was the first time we had a shooting in a place of worship, and it brought South Carolina to her knees,” she said. 
Haley spoke about the grief that washed over her communities and how issues of racism and gun control surfaced. As governor, she made the decision to remove the Confederate flag over the state capitol building into a museum. 
“I will tell you it was a defining moment in my life because it was the only way I was able to pull through and get through it,” Haley said, as she shared how she leaned on her faith. “But more than that I was able to see South Carolina through in a way that she showed real strength and grace. 
“We didn’t have riots. We had vigils. We didn’t have protests. We have hugs, and the rest of the world saw what happens when you bring people together.”
Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year-old businessman who has proposed swaths of cuts across numerous federal agencies, committed to eliminating the FBI when questioned on the policy by Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird.
“I don’t think reform of that agency is actually possible,” Ramaswamy said, after Bird said she believes that “they serve an important role” and asked for clarity on his position. “I think you have to shut it down. This is more than a slogan to me. This is deeply practical.”
Ramaswamy has proposed cuts that would encompass around 75% of the federal employee headcount, arguing that it’s the duty of the president to shrink the executive branch. He said that of the list of proposed judicial appointees he has released, “they share my fundamental skepticism” about the federal bureaucracy.
“Every one of those justices we appoint will share that conviction in common,” Ramaswamy said.
Office workers at the FBI and other agencies, he said, would have to “go home and find honest work in the private sector,” while others would be reassigned across existing and consolidated departments.
And he committed to a robust relationship with Israel if elected, saying there are policies enacted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would “love to learn from.”
“I would love border policies like Israel’s in this country,” Ramaswamy said. “I would love tough-on-crime policies, like Israel’s infrastructure, a strong national identity that they have for their youth.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence accused his Republican competitors of ignoring traditional Republican values like a strong national defense, leadership in the world, fiscal responsibility and the right to life.
“There are many vying for your support in that Jan. 15 caucus that are walking away from those very same timeless principles and ideals that have minted our party and defined our movement over the last 50 years,” he said.
Pence warned in a speech in New Hampshire this month that other Republican candidates are embracing populism over conservatism, saying Republicans must choose traditional conservatism.
More:Mike Pence warns ‘populist’ Republican candidates like Trump traffic in ‘performative outrage’
“There’s already a party that believes in appeasement on the world stage,” Pence said. “There’s already a party that wants to ignore the debt crisis facing future generations. There’s already a party that wants to marginalize the right to life. I think the Republican party should be the conservative party for the United States of America and offer a vision to bring this country back based on our timeless principles.”
Pence reiterated his belief that arming the Ukrainian military is in the United States’ interests so that Russia doesn’t invade a country that the U.S. is obligated by treaty to defend.
“My former running mate and others who you’ll even hear from tonight have walked away from American leadership in the world,” he said.
Pence also said he supports a national ban on abortion at 15 weeks, while encouraging states to pass laws that go further, like Iowa has done.
“Why would we leave unborn babies in California and Illinois and New York to the devices of liberal state legislatures and liberal governors?” Pence said. “We need to stand for the unborn all across America and as your president I promise you’ll have a champion for life in the Oval Office.”
Pence also said he “absolutely” supports the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden launched by House Republicans this month, but he declined to say he would vote to impeach Biden if he were serving in Congress.
“I don’t want to jump to conclusions about this,” he said. “But I must tell you, where there’s smoke there’s usually fire in Washington, D.C. And the American people deserve the facts.”
More:In Iowa, Mike Pence welcomes House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry into President Biden
Texas businessman and pastor Ryan Binkley said he was raised in a Christian household — that he gave his life to God at 13, drifted from his faith for a bit but at 24 recommitted his life to God and later opened a church.
Binkley told Iowa Bird he thinks it’s important to share his faith even in places where it might not be welcomed.
“We have a freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, and we have a right to express it,” he said.
He shared further that the “far-left woke agenda” is one of the most divisive issues in the country but talked about building bridges with members of the LGBTQ community who attended one of his events.
That agenda “is one of the things we need to stand against,” but Binkley said conservatives need to focus on “how do we win the middle” and “the hearts of the people and show love.” Now, he added, is the time “for us to respect each other.”
On foreign policy, Binkley told Bird that it’s vital to show strength abroad and said he would support aid to Israel from the United States.
“It’s so important for the world to know our heartfelt connection and spiritual connection as Christians and believers here tonight and what Israel means to us,” he said. 
Michigan businessman Perry Johnson criticized the Republican National Committee during his interview with Bird.
Johnson, who has claimed he was excluded from the first GOP presidential debate in August, says the RNC has “corrupted” the election process. 
“Instead of having us focus on Iowa, they want us to go national,” Johnson said, insisting that it’s time to “stop that.”
Johnson during the interview emphasized the importance of family — that parents can choose what school to send their children to — before briefly segueing into his plan to dismantle the Department of Education.
“There is nothing more important to our country than our children,” he said. “They are our future.”
Former Texas congressman Will Hurd called for the U.S. to renew the strength of its partnership with Israel, saying Biden had not prioritized that relationship amid a string of critiques on the administration’s foreign policy.
“Those that are running for the highest office in the land need to recognize who are our friends, who are our enemies,” Hurd said. “Israel is our friend and we should be supportive.”
He also criticized the administration’s prisoner swap with Iran that unfroze $6 billion, arguing the nation had “destabilized the region.”
Asked by Bird how he would address “election integrity,” he said his solution was simple: to require identification to vote.
He said he supported a 15-week abortion ban and called for adequate resources to address neonatal health for new mothers.
In some parts of the country, “their chances of dying are higher than some places in the developing world,” Hurd said. “To me that’s unacceptable.”
Radio personality Larry Elder said he does not support passing a federal law restricting abortion and that the issue should be left to the states.
“I feel so strongly about this issue. I personally believe that life begins at conception,” Elder said. “I do not, however, believe that it is an issue that the federal government should take over.”
Elder said Democrats were able to successfully use the issue of abortion against Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections by saying Republicans wanted to ban the procedure nationwide. He said he wants to see Democrats face more scrutiny over their abortion policies.
“They want to call us extremists when they’re the ones who are the extremists,” he said.
Abortion opponents believed the issue should be left to the states prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, Elder said, and passing a federal law would undermine their historic arguments about states’ rights.
Elder said the only way he could support federal involvement in abortion legislation would be through a constitutional amendment.
“That’s the only real way to do this,” he said. “Doing it with legislation is, to me, again, a refutation of everything we said about Roe v. Wade.”
But he said he doesn’t believe such a constitutional amendment would be successful. Instead, he said abortion opponents should help people experiencing crisis pregnancies by pointing them to options like adoption.
“I think it’s far more important for us to use our resources, time and energy to make the moral case against abortion and to tell people that they have all sorts of options,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott kept his answer simple when Bird asked him his thoughts on COVID-19 vaccine mandates. 
He said they were “bad.” 
“We should never ever have mandates. I trust people to make their own decisions,” he explained. 
Scott told Bird that “one of the worst decisions” made was to temporarily close schools during the pandemic and keep students at home. Students’ “scores went down” and crime and unemployment rates “went up,” he said.  
During the conversation, Scott said he supports school choice and if elected, he would take Gov. Kim Reynolds model and expand it on a national level. Scott stressed that he wants students, including those growing up in poverty or in rural America, to have quality education.
Bird also got personal with Scott and asked him about his love life, a topic that has made headlines in the past week.
“Other than your mom, is there a special lady in your life?” Bird asked.
“Yes,” said Scott, who is the only unmarried Republican presidential candidate. He didn’t reveal her identity — only that she is “a lovely Christian girl.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, searching for momentum in the polls, criticized several of his challengers for their stances on immigration policy and abortion — including Trump.
He called restricting abortion “a matter of conviction,” and pointed to a recent news story that identified the former president as wanting to be a mediator between “both sides” of the issue. Reed, interviewing Hutchinson, clarified that it was Trump who had made that comment.
“Both sides aren’t going to like you,” Hutchinson said. “This is going to be a fight for life, and we’ve been doing that for 40 years. You take a stand, you state your position.”
Asked about what needs to be done on the southern border, Hutchinson urged caution toward other Republican candidates who have called for an effective military invasion of Mexico to combat cartel activity, instead urging a more cooperative approach.
“They’re a friend and country, we can’t invade Mexico, we shouldn’t invade Mexico,” Hutchinson said. “But we’ve got to pressure them economically to work with us to enforce the rule of law.”
Hutchinson, who served as an impeachment manager in the House during the Clinton administration, said he supported House Republicans’ new inquiry into President Joe Biden, saying there were “a lot of unanswered questions.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the first candidate to speak at Saturday night’s event. Faith and Freedom Coalition Chair Ralph Reed asked DeSantis whether U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama is right to hold up the promotions of senior military officers over the Defense Department’s abortion policies.
“Yes,” DeSantis said. “I support what he’s doing. First of all, what the Defense Department is doing is outside the law. They are breaking, violating the law by funding abortion tourism with tax dollars, and so when agencies do that, the Congress has to stand up and push back against it.”
Tuberville has held up more than 300 promotions for senior military officers that require Senate confirmation this year due to his objection to the Defense Department’s policy to pay for traveling expenses for service members who travel out of state for abortions.
DeSantis said if he’s elected president, Biden’s policy “goes into the trash can where it belongs.”
“We have a limited amount of money in the defense budget,” DeSantis said. “We’re running low on ammunition. Our recruiting is in the absolute gutter now and you’re funding abortion tourism? Is that really something that is helping to protect this country?”
Reed also asked DeSantis to talk about how his Catholic faith sustains him and informs what he does as a leader.
“Faith in God provides you with the strength to be able to weather the storms that come when you’re exercising leadership,” DeSantis said, pointing to political battles in Florida over COVID policies and LGBTQ instruction in schools.
“People sometimes ask me, ‘What does it take to be an effective leader?’” DeSantis said. “And to me, I would say first, put on the full armor of God. Then you can be an effective leader when you do that.”
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, greeted by a standing ovation, kicked off the night’s speeches to a roomful of about 1,100 people.
“Like our founders, this organization understands that faith in God is the very foundation of our freedom, making us strong, resilient, and confident in the defense of those rights,” she said. “And let me tell you a bold, self-confident faith is what this nation needs now more than ever.”
She touted Iowa’s “fetal heartbeat” six-week abortion ban, its ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth and a sweeping “school choice” law that lets families use taxpayer funds to help pay for private schools.
Reynolds said she hopes to set a turnout record in the 2024 Republican caucuses.
“To do that, we need everyone in the fight,” she said. “And this incredible turnout tonight gives me so much hope and it’s so encouraging, that I know that we can do this.”
Several candidates made campaign stops around the state Saturday before arriving in Des Moines to speak at the Faith & Freedom banquet.
DeSantis stopped by the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ for a campaign event on Saturday afternoon alongside the Faith Wins activist group. He was there to draw attention to an issue he said “does not get the attention it deserves”: the “preservation and the restoration of religious freedom.”
“Recently, over the recent decades, you’ve seen a steady chipping away of what the founders viewed as true religious freedom,” DeSantis said. “And the left in this country is intent on infringing your religious freedom.”
Joined by pastors, business owners, legislators and others from Iowa and outside of the state, DeSantis and his assembled allies focused much of their frustration on pandemic-era restrictions that in some states limited or halted religious services in the early months of the virus.
They criticized the liberal Supreme Court justices who voted against recent rulings on religious expression; Democratic elected officials and governors; and transgender people.
“They’re trying to establish a religion,” DeSantis said. “It’s a religion of leftism.”
Earlier in the day, four presidential candidates took turns shooting trap at the Jasper County GOP’s annual trap shoot.
“I’m Mike Pence. I’m from Indiana. I like to shoot guns and I’m running for president of the United States of America,” the former vice president began his remarks to the group of local Republicans lining up to shoot.
“I look forward to shooting with all of you,” Pence said. “They’re giving me a couple of real experienced guys to shoot with me and I said if you want to go ahead and shoot at the same time I shoot that’d be just fine.”
Wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a leather pouch of shotgun shells, Pence stepped up to take his turn at the trap shoot, where he hit 12 out of 25 targets
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said inflation is hurting the country.
“We always talk about the cost of eggs, the cost of goods in the store and the cost of gasoline,” he said. “Well, let me tell you, inflation hits the cost of shotgun shells as well.”
Texas businessman and pastor Ryan Binkley joked that some of the regulars gave him some tips.
“Hopefully I can hit a few,” he said. “I got some tips from the young guys, so I think I’m in good shape.”
E. W. Jackson said he was angry about what’s happening in the country, criticizing New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for issuing an order temporarily suspending the right to carry firearms in public places.
“The New Mexico governor had the unmitigated gall to suspend the 2nd Amendment for 30 days,” Jackson said. “What’s next?”
Haley hit the ground running with a slew of campaign events in Iowa, marking her first return to the Hawkeye State since the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 12.
Haley, who had a strong performance during last month’s first Republican debate, has split her time in her home state of South Carolina and New Hampshire.  
On Friday, Haley held a three-part event at Crystal Creek Enterprise in Grand Mound, meeting with hundreds of voters and speaking to state and agricultural leaders. On Saturday, before the Faith and Freedom event in Des Moines, Haley held a town hall at Jethro’s BBQ in West Des Moines and appeared at a Q&A event with former Gov. Terry Branstad in Indianola. 
Throughout the weekend, Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador, spoke of “hard truths” — that Republicans are also to blame for the $32 trillion of federal debt. 
“Republicans have put in the budget $7.4 billion worth of pet projects in earmarks. Democrats put in $2.8 billion. You tell me who the big spenders are now,” she said Friday to a crowd of more than 100 attendees. 
Haley also touted plans to close the southern border while highlighting the gaps in America’s immigration system. She wants to do away with quotas and instead “vet and approve” immigrants based on their merits and employ them in industries in need of workers such as farming, construction and tourism.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that we have to deal with the border or illegal immigration. We deal with both at the same time,” she said. “Our legal immigration system is broken. It should not take someone 10 years to become a citizen.”
On his way to Des Moines, Scott stopped in Dubuque for a town hall event at the Word of Life Church. There he worked the crowd and touted his recently-released economic platform while comparing Biden’s record on the economy to the Jimmy Carter administration.
“That was a nation in retreat,” Scott said. “18% interest rates. Getting a home was 15%. Running out of gas and the gas stations spiking your prices. But in less than four years, we were talking about the city on the hill. … You see when you’re in a retreat, all you have to do is change the leadership and turn it around.”
Scott, who often points to his poor upbringing on the trail, said he wants to restore a sense of the dignity of work, and that he rejects other forms of social advancement.
“Equity cannot be given. It must be earned. I will not be the president that gives away equity. I think this whole notion we give people something they haven’t earned is destroying the soul of our country,” he said. “… I want to restore the sense of urgency, that all things are possible, and frankly those of us who are American citizens, you won the lottery. Use it. Go to work.”
Des Moines Register reporter William Morris contributed reporting.


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