Republican presidential candidates emphasized their support for abortion restrictions, parental rights and Israel while working Saturday night to win over evangelical Iowa caucusgoers.
More than 1,000 people gathered in Des Moines for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition annual fall banquet. The conservative Christian organization has played an influential role in the Republican presidential race in Iowa, bringing candidates together for events and asking them about issues related to “religious liberties.”
The nine candidates who addressed the crowd all spoke of the importance of faith in their life and politics and said they would bring those values to the Oval Office if elected.
But there were areas where candidates differed: Ralph Reed, the founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, asked former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to defend their comments at the first Republican presidential debate on the feasibility of a federal abortion ban.
Reed said Christian conservatives are going to play an important role in the 2024 election, and said the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s goal was to “get out the biggest Christian vote that has happened in modern American history.”
“We’re going to create a margin so big they can’t even steal it if they try,” he said.
Not all 2024 presidential candidates attended. Most notably, former President Donald Trump skipped the event. Trump, who led in the August Des Moines Register/Mediacom/NBC News Iowa Poll, has avoided many of the traditional stops on the Iowa caucus trail, but has visited the state in September. He came to the Iowa-Iowa State football game earlier in the month and has a rally planned in Dubuque on Wednesday.
Cleon Babcock of Des Moines, said he liked what candidates like Haley and Ramaswamy had to say at the coalition event, but that Trump was still his top pick for nominee.
“Right now, (my choice) would be Trump, because he has a better chance,” Babcock said. “But I’m never close-minded. I mean, I learned some things tonight as I listened, that’s what it’s all about.”
Here are some highlights from the candidates’ remarks:
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had more time on the stage than other candidates at the event. Reed asked about her decision as governor to relocate the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina Capitol after a shooter used it as a manifesto during a shooting in the state.
Haley complimented South Carolina’s response to the tragedy and said, “I was able to see South Carolina through in a way that she showed real strength and greatness. We didn’t have riots. We had vigils. We didn’t have protests, we had hugs.”
Haley also defended her remarks about abortion that she made on the Republican debate stage in August. She said she was “unapologetically pro-life” but said a respectful approach to the topic is necessary.
“I’m going to fight on the side of life every chance I get, but I’m not going to demonize people in the process,” she said.
As she did during the first debate, Haley said said abortion bans from a federal level are unrealistic. “No Republican president can anymore ban abortions than a Democrat president can ban their state laws. So my goal is how do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible.”
The only way to pass abortion bans is to humanize the issue, according to Haley.
“If you go and you put these restrictions that make people demonize each other,” she said, “I’m not going to be a part of the demonize and we have to humanize this issue if we’re ever going to pass it and do more.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would be open to “pro-life” federal abortion legislation.
The Republican candidate signed a law in April that bans most abortions after six weeks. When asked by Reed if he sees the future of abortion law in the hands of states or the federal government, DeSantis praised states like Florida and Iowa for enacting abortion restrictions after the fall of Roe v. Wade.
“I think the states have done a better job thus far, Congress has really struggled to make a meaningful impact over the years,” DeSantis said. “As president, I’m going to welcome pro-life policies across the board, you know, at both levels.”
Additionally, the candidate said he supports U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s blockade stopping hundreds of military promotions over a policy allowing troops and their dependents to take paid leave and travel reimbursements for abortion procedures.
He said he supported Tuberville calling out the Defense Department for “violating the law by funding abortion tourism with tax dollars.”
While DeSantis emphasized his pro-life positions, he said it’s important also to remember the women who “need our support” in these positions. Many abortions are driven by financial considerations, DeSantis said, and pointed to Florida policies like eliminating taxes on infant products to help expectant mothers. He also pointed to “Hope Florida,” a program spearheaded by his wife, Casey DeSantis, that focuses on connecting people in need with non-government organizations like charities, churches and businesses, that can offer support.
“A lot of these women have no support,” he said. “The fathers are nowhere to be found. And so they look at it, and they say how can I actually make this work? … We’ve got to do better. So what I did in Florida said, ‘OK, I want to make sure that this is doable.’”
Karen Fesler from Coralville said her favorite candidate is DeSantis. Although Fesler said she likes Trump, she said one thing that puts DeSantis above Trump for her is that DeSantis has an opportunity to serve two terms, whereas Trump is a lame duck on inauguration day.
“It’s not that I don’t like him or I don’t support his policies,” Fesler said. “I do. I think it’s going to be incredibly hard for him to focus on a campaign. And then if he would have been elected, focus on being president.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson faced questions about “Bidenomics,” immigration and abortion and said he would support any deal made by Congress to limit abortion as president.
“If our members of Congress can reach a consensus and pass a pro-life bill that has reasonable exceptions to it, that we all agree upon, I will sign that as a pro-life president,“ Hutchinson said.
He acknowledged a criticism Trump made on Hutchinson’s stance on abortion: “There is another candidate that I respect but is not here tonight, that told NBC News that I’m going to make both sides happy on this issue.”
Hutchinson said that both sides will not like him, and “this is going to be a fight for life.”
Hutchinson also supported the U.S. House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry on Biden. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy directed committees earlier this month to open an inquiry into unproven allegations that as vice president, Biden profited from his son’s business dealings.
“I haven’t seen enough evidence yet, but there’s certainly enough evidence to do an inquiry and I applaud the House for investigating this matter, getting to the bottom of it because President Biden has not sufficiently answered those questions.”
On the topic of the economy, the former governor said the first step to “reversing Bidenomics” is to produce energy domestically, and he said “I want the private sector of the economy to grow faster than the government sector.”
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott had an important life update for Iowans: He’s in a relationship.
“Can we just pray together for me?” he joked, kneeling on the stage in front of the crowd. Scott has faced media questions about his unmarried status.
The South Carolina Republican announced earlier in September that he had a girlfriend – his first public relationship since entering office.
Scott also went over his support for anti-abortion and “school choice” laws, both at the state and federal levels. He praised Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private school scholarship program, passed earlier this year and kicked off for the 2023-2024 school year, which allows families to use state funding for private school tuition and associated costs.
“I would take the model of Gov. Kim Reynolds in this great state and make it a nationwide model,” Scott said.
He said he would take Title I money in a “proverbial backpack” and allow the federal funding to leave the public school system if a parent decides to send their child to a private school. He also said he would support changes to 529 savings plans for homeschool expenses.
“Actually, if you think about it, you’re paying taxes for someone else’s kid to go to school, and then you’re punished because you can’t get a tax credit for educating your own kid,” Scott said. “That’s just wrong.”
The candidate also railed against states that chose to continue remote learning in public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was immoral, what happened then,” Scott said. “No mandates: If your kid can’t go to the school where they’re supposed to go, under my legislation I’ll sign as president, they can go to any other school that’s open. Catholic school, public school, private school, homeschool, virtual school – all kinds of schools.”
While discussing Roe v. Wade, former California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder said abortion is not up to the federal government.
“One of the reasons I believe we did so poorly in the midterms is because the pro-abortion side was able to say to people, this now means that there’ll be a law passed at the federal level to outlaw abortion or put time limits on abortion.”
Elder said he believes life begins at conception and said he believes conservatives have “walked the walk” when it comes to taking care of pregnant women.
“People who are so-called in crisis pregnancies, as they say, have all sorts of options, and we are talking the talk and walking the walk,” Elder said.
Elder also spoke on policing and George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020, sparking protests around the country. “This defund the police, assault on a police movement, is an outrage and it is getting people killed,” he said.
He said 35 people were killed during protests, 2,000 police officers were wounded and there was more about $2 billion in property damage, “all because of an assumption that what happened to George Floyd, however you feel about it, happened because of his race.”
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd said the U.S. needs to hold fast in supporting Israel, especially while considering potential conflicts with other countries like Iran in the Middle East.
Hurd, a former CIA agent, criticized President Joe Biden’s administration for issuing a waiver allowing international banks to allow the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue currently blocked by U.S. sanctions. The exchange was to carry out a prisoner exchange with Iran – in addition to freeing five Iranians held in the U.S. for five Americans in Iranian detention, according to a State Department document.
He said the prison exchange was just one of the “crazy foreign policy” decisions made by the Biden administration, pointing also to the military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the “lack of engagement” with Latin America on southern border security.
He said giving Iran money in this situation was a poor decision.
“They are destabilizing the region, the broader Middle East,” Hurd said. “You cannot trust the Iranians, you should never trust the Iranians. You shouldn’t be giving them $6 billion and you have nothing to show for it.”
He also said the country’s relations in the Middle East have been made worse by Biden’s “lack of support” for Israel. He also criticized former President Barack Obama, when Biden served as vice president, for not providing sufficient support to Israel.
“We should be supporting Israel,” Hurd said. “And those that are running for the highest office in the land need to recognize who are our friends who are enemies. Israel is a friend, and we should be supporting them.”
Entrepreneur Perry Johnson did not mention his 2-cents plan until his last sentences, and instead spoke on family values, abortion and judge selection.
The Michigander said school choice is a right for parents and received a round of applause when he said he wanted to get rid of the federal Department of Education.
“We’re going to make sure that the family unit is core that freedom is now here, and we’re not going to have the government tell us how to teach our kids, what to teach our kids anymore,” Johnson said.
On abortion, Johnson said he believes that life begins at conception, and as he teared up, said, “The greatest joy in my life are my kids. I mean, when you think of the greatest joys you’ve had in all your life, doesn’t it boil down to your kids and your family?”
Johnson did not share a legislative or executive plan to handle abortion during his time on stage, though he did say Republicans have a winning case to fight late-term abortions.
Texas businessman and pastor Ryan Binkley said he felt called by God to run for president in the 2024 election to restore faith in the United States.
“Our nation, I really believe this was created by God to be this lamppost of freedom,” Binkley said. “ … God spoke to me to run, because he wants to brighten that lamp of freedom up once again.”
Binkley said religious liberties and Christian values are under attack by Democrats and the Biden administration. He said he has been encouraged to talk less about religion on the campaign trail, but that he wanted Americans to remember that the U.S. has “freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”
Fixing many problems in American society will come from doing a better job of bringing back faith into American life, he said.
“The main message I’m sharing with people regardless of their faith, because I come across so many people everywhere, is listening to the main words Jesus gave us,” Binkley said. “Let’s demonstrate our love for God by showing our love for other people. You know, Jesus never said ‘Hire the government to take care of your neighborhood.’ He said ‘love your neighbor.’ So that’s what I’m sharing, let’s demonstrate our faith by loving each other.”
One of the “greatest divisive issues” in America was conflicts between religious beliefs and LGBTQ issues, he said. While he said there was a need to fight against the “far-left woke agenda” targeting young children, which he said can be defeated by speaking the truth and a love for God.
But he also said he has talked with LGBTQ people during his campaign and found a way to connect.
“But in a better sense, we need to really start working on ‘how do we win the middle?’” Binkley said. “How do we win the hearts of people and show love? And so when we were in our meeting just the other day, we shared with them truth, we shared with them love but also just shared with them this: it’s time for us to respect each other.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence cited his pro-life history as a representative, governor and vice president. Pence, who has spent much of his time on the campaign trail speaking on his Christian values, expressed pride in the Trump administration’s judicial appointments.
“To have been a part of the administration that appointed three of the justices that sent Roe versus Wade to the ash heap of history, where it belongs, is something I will cherish for the rest of my life,” Pence said.
Reed brought up Pence’s disagreement with Haley at the Milwaukee debate, asking Pence to weigh in on the “spirited debate” happening within the GOP over a federal 15-week abortion ban.
“I believe that we owe it to the American people to elect a president who will fight for a minimum standard in Washington, D.C. I must tell you, I think we ought to ban abortion across America, from that point that a baby can experience pain in the womb, forward, it’s a 15-week minimum ban.”
Pence mentioned Ukraine, a topic he received “boos” for in an event held in the same venue in July.
“I think it’s absolutely in the national interest of the United States of America to give the Ukrainian military what they need to defeat and repel the Russian invasion,” Pence said. “So Russia doesn’t cross the border that we have to go fight on someday soon. I believe that that’s the way we prevent World War III.”
Pence also spoke on Social Security and Medicare, calling for reform. “The truth of the matter is these programs are driving a mountain range of debt on our children and our grandchildren,” Pence said.
Pence criticized Biden for his plan for the programs. “He won’t even talk about those programs, and most of the candidates in this field are the same.” Pence added that Trump’s plan is “identical to Joe Biden’s.”
Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy said all 2024 presidential candidates should put forward a list of their potential U.S. Supreme Court justice nominees.
Ramaswamy said he was the only candidate in the race so far to release the names of his picks for the federal courts, a list that includes U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, former Solicitor General Paul Clement and six current conservative federal appellate judges. He also has put forward a pool of judges currently serving on federal courts that he would select for U.S. circuit court if elected.
When asked what qualities he is looking for in judicial nominees, Ramaswamy said the most important issue is interpreting the Constitution “as it exists.”
He also said he would appoint people who share his beliefs that federal agencies have too much power.
“One of the key areas of the litmus test that I use for every judge on that list was to make sure that they share my fundamental skepticism of the existence of the administrative state itself,” Ramaswamy said. “… So anybody I put on that Supreme Court, I will share my view and conviction, as I believe six of the current justices actually do that the U.S. president can shut down agencies like the FBI or the U.S. Department of Education.”
Ramaswamy defended his position of shutting down the FBI, a stance U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley called “stupid” Friday on “Iowa Press.” He said he supported firing the “bureaucrats” working for the agency, but would have the FBI agents serving “on the front lines” moved to other federal agencies like the U.S. Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and financial crimes network in the U.S. Treasury.
“I’m gonna be very candid about this, I don’t think reform of that agency is actually possible at this stage. It has 60 years of rot,” Ramaswamy said. “You cannot reform it. I think you have to shut down.”
This article first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom network.