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Evangelical Christian voters in Iowa love Trump. Can another Republican win them over?

In a special legislative session that lasted around 15 hours, Republican lawmakers passed a "fetal heartbeat" bill that would effectively ban abortion after six weeks on Tuesday, July 11. Hundreds of Iowans rallied at the Capitol in protest and support of the legislation, clashing often in the building's rotunda.
Madeleine Charis King/IPR
In a special legislative session that lasted around 15 hours, Republican lawmakers passed a "fetal heartbeat" bill that would effectively ban abortion after six weeks on Tuesday, July 11. Hundreds of Iowans rallied at the Capitol in protest and support of the legislation, clashing often in the building's rotunda.

Former President Donald Trump is skipping an Iowa summit for evangelical Christians where the state's governor will sign a strict abortion ban on stage Friday. Evangelical voters are an important voting bloc in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, so any Republican who hopes to win the nomination over Trump has to win these voters first.

One path to the evangelical voter? Abortion.

Iowa's Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds called a special legislative session Tuesday to pass a six-week abortion ban. The six-week ban is nearly identical to one she signed in 2018 that was blocked by the courts. The Iowa Supreme Court deadlocked and kept an injunction on that law in place this summer. Iowa abortion providers filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to block the enforcement.

Hundreds of protesters packed the Iowa capitol rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday morning as the Republican-led legislature prepared to pass the ban in one day. Marie Fitch was there to show support for the bill.

In a special legislative session that lasted around 15 hours, Republican lawmakers passed a "fetal heartbeat" bill that would effectively ban abortion after six weeks on Tuesday, July 11. Hundreds of Iowans rallied at the Capitol in protest and support of the legislation, clashing often in the building's rotunda.
/ Madeleine Charis King/IPR
/
Madeleine Charis King/IPR
In a special legislative session that lasted around 15 hours, Republican lawmakers passed a "fetal heartbeat" bill that would effectively ban abortion after six weeks on Tuesday, July 11. Hundreds of Iowans rallied at the Capitol in protest and support of the legislation, clashing often in the building's rotunda.

"People say you can't be a one issue voter," Fitch said. "Yeah, you can."

Fitch is a Republican who plans to participate in the 2024 Iowa caucuses and says for her, it all comes down to a candidate's strict stance on abortion.

"I don't have my mind made up [on a candidate]," Fitch said. "What I want to hear is that they're honestly pro-life and intend to protect the least of our brothers and sisters: the babies in the womb who have a right to life."

While evangelical Christians were outnumbered by protesters opposing the bill, they make up a large subset of Republican voters here who can help propel a campaign to a victory on caucus night.

But not every clergy member who showed up supports the six-week abortion ban, when many don't even know they're pregnant. John Chaplin is a local pastor with the United Church of Christ and calls the legislation disturbing.

"It's as if the legislators are taking their own personal religious views and trying to transfer it onto the general public," Chaplin said, citing a March Des Moines Register poll that says 61% of Iowans favor safe abortion.

In a special legislative session that lasted around 15 hours, Republican lawmakers passed a "fetal heartbeat" bill that would effectively ban abortion after six weeks on Tuesday, July 11. Hundreds of Iowans rallied at the Capitol in protest and support of the legislation, clashing often in the building's rotunda.
/ Madeleine Charis King/IPR
/
Madeleine Charis King/IPR
In a special legislative session that lasted around 15 hours, Republican lawmakers passed a "fetal heartbeat" bill that would effectively ban abortion after six weeks on Tuesday, July 11. Hundreds of Iowans rallied at the Capitol in protest and support of the legislation, clashing often in the building's rotunda.

While supporting strict abortion bans could help a politician in a primary, it could also be a vulnerability in a general election. That has not stopped politicians from leaning into it though.

At a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, last week, Trump took credit for overturning the federally guaranteed right to an abortion. He reminded the cheering crowd that he appointed three justices to the Supreme Court.

"They ruled against Roe v. Wade giving pro-lifers tremendous power to negotiate and moving this issue back to the states," Trump said.

Trump still enjoys a great deal of support among evangelical voters in Iowa. His former Vice President Mike Pence is running too, and is embracing Trump's record to try and siphon some of that support away from him.

"I couldn't be more proud to be part of the administration that appointed three of the justices that sent Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history where it belongs," Pence told reporters after a Pottawattamie County Republican fundraiser in Neola, Iowa. "But I take issue with the former president and others who suggested the Supreme Court only returned that question to the states."

Pence will be among those attending the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines that Trump declined to attend. Bob Vander Plaats heads up this evangelical Christian group and is an influential kingmaker in Republican politics. Vander Plaats endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ahead of his caucus win over Trump in 2016.

"No one really saw Trump coming. We always say Cruz got trumped," Vander Platts said. "This year, I think you have several candidates who are strong in conviction and who have the resources to go the distance."

Trump won't be at the Family Leadership Summit this year, which is co-moderated by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. It might not have been that warm of a welcome if he was.

This week, Trump attacked Iowa Gov. Reynolds, for remaining neutral in the race.

Trump has taken credit for her political success and has signaled that he expects loyalty in return.

She has also been onstage at several campaign events with Trump's main rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

While Vander Plaats praises Trump's first term in office, he says it's time for a new nominee.

"There's no doubt Trump has a significant base here yet. He'll be very difficult to beat," Vander Plaats said. "But I believe his base is also his ceiling."

It certainly can't hurt these other politicians to be on stage as Reynolds signs the state's new six-week abortion ban — a photo-op Trump won't have as he works to hold on to evangelical voters in Iowa.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.