The influential Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats endorsed Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida for the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday, the second major endorsement Mr. DeSantis has picked up this month in the state.
Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s popular Republican governor, announced her support two weeks ago, giving Mr. DeSantis a key surrogate in a state that will hold the first vote of the Republican primary season with its caucuses on Jan. 15.
“We need to find somebody who can win in 2024,” Mr. Vander Plaats said on Tuesday on “Special Report With Bret Baier” on Fox News. “What we saw in 2022, the supposedly red wave really only happened in Florida and in Iowa. Governor DeSantis took a reliable tossup state in Florida and made it complete red.”
Mr. Vander Plaats has endorsed the last three Republicans who won contested Iowa caucuses — Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012 and Ted Cruz in 2016 — though none of them went on to win the nomination. But it is far from clear that his support will be enough to bolster Mr. DeSantis, who is trailing former President Donald J. Trump by huge margins in polls in Iowa as well as nationally.
As of Tuesday, Mr. DeSantis was more than 25 points behind Mr. Trump in the FiveThirtyEight average of Iowa surveys — an enormous gap to make up in less than two months’ time. And he is barely holding on to second place over Nikki Haley.
Mr. Vander Plaats did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Mr. Vander Plaats is well known for his influence among evangelicals, who are a powerful voting bloc in Iowa and have lifted socially conservative candidates there before.
He is also a divisive figure. His organization once encouraged Republican candidates to sign a pledge that included a lament that “a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American president.”
The Democratic National Committee highlighted a recent report about that pledge on Friday, as several Republican candidates prepared to appear at an event with Mr. Vander Plaats.
On Tuesday, a D.N.C. spokeswoman, Sarafina Chitika, said: “Vander Plaats’ endorsement should come as no surprise — both he and DeSantis share the same desire to ban abortion and rip away freedoms from millions of women. They both promoted the insulting idea that slavery somehow benefited Black families.”
At the recent event, a gala on Saturday for the anti-abortion group Pulse Life Advocates, Mr. Vander Plaats said that opposition to abortion was the single most important factor in his support for a candidate.
“If they are not crystal clear where they are at on the sanctity of human life, you can’t trust them on anything else,” Mr. Vander Plaats said, adding: “The sanctity of life is not something to be nuanced. It’s not something to be poll-tested. It’s not a thing where the heartbeat bill was too harsh of a thing to be passed at the state level for the state of Florida.”
That comment about the “heartbeat” bill, a common conservative name for six-week abortion bans, was a clear criticism of Mr. Trump, though Mr. Vander Plaats did not name him. Mr. Trump has called the six-week ban that Mr. DeSantis signed in Florida “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.”
Mr. Trump is, more than any other Republican, responsible for the Dobbs ruling that ended Roe v. Wade and allowed such laws to take effect, as he appointed three of the Supreme Court justices who made the ruling.
Mr. Trump has not courted Mr. Vander Plaats, and the former president’s supporters have been dismissive about his endorsement’s significance. A statement from the Trump campaign on Tuesday said, “While the DeSantis camp will try and spin that a Vander Plaats endorsement will revive their sputtering and shrinking campaign, cold hard data tells a much different story. These G.O.P. caucus attenders have mixed feelings about Vander Plaats, if they have any opinion at all, and no few if any are moving to vote for DeSantis because of his endorsement.”
Shane Goldmacher and Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting.