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Candidates’ family members join the stage at Feenstra fundraiser in Sioux Center

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Candidates’ family members join the stage at Feenstra fundraiser in Sioux Center

Dec 09, 2023 | 2:49 pm ET
By Robin Opsahl
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Candidates’ family members join the stage at Feenstra fundraiser in Sioux Center
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey DeSantis, spoke about his campaign to become the Republican presidential nominee with U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra and his wife Lynette Feenstra at Dordt University in Sioux Center Dec. 9, 2023. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

SIOUX CENTER — When presidential candidates sat down with U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra and his wife Lynette Feenstra at Dordt University in Sioux Center, all brought special guests – their children and spouses – to discuss their commitment to family values and religion as Republican presidential hopefuls.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Texas pastor and businessman Ryan Binkley spoke about their time on the campaign trail and policy positions at the “Faith and Family with the Feenstras” fundraiser. All four were joined by family members – DeSantis’ wife, Casey DeSantis, Binkley’s wife, Ellie Binkley, Haley’s daughter Rena Haley and Ramaswamy’s 3-year-old son Karthik Ramaswamy all took the stage alongside their politician family members.

The event was not just a chance to campaign in Iowa’s deep red 4th Congressional District, but a chance to court Feenstra for a potential endorsement. The U.S. representative told the Des Moines Register in July that he intended to endorse a presidential candidate ahead of the Iowa caucuses at a time when other influential Iowa Republicans said they planned to remain neutral.

In the months since, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds endorsed DeSantis, as have several high-profile GOP state lawmakers and Family Leader President and CEO Bob Vander Plaats. But no members of Iowa’s all-Republican U.S. congressional delegation have yet weighed in.

Feenstra thanked the candidates and their loved ones for speaking at the event, urging Iowans to participate in the 2024 Republican caucuses.

“We listened to the possibilities of what we have for leaders for our country — that’s step one,” Feenstra said. “Step number two is, we have to deliver on each one of us, we have to — Jan. 15 — go to caucus and decide. It’s our civic duty, and what we are called to do.”

Candidates campaigning alongside their family are not uncommon in Iowa. Casey DeSantis and their family’s three young children often join the Florida governor on the campaign trail in Iowa; Ramaswamy’s wife Apoorva Ramaswamy and their sons have also appeared with him at Iowa events.

When a reporter asked DeSantis if Casey was his “secret weapon,” he said his campaign is not keeping her a secret – “people know she’s very effective,” he said.

“I like being with her on the campaign trail,” DeSantis said. “But from a campaign strategy perspective, it’s better for her to be doing her own events because she draws crowds, she flips voters. … I mean, these are folks that are kind of, nominal Trump people – when she tells him about me, she does it. So she’s a great vote-getter.”

Candidates’ family members join the stage at Feenstra fundraiser in Sioux Center
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, was joined by her 25-year-old daughter Rena Haley at the “Faith and Family with the Feenstras” fundraiser event at Dordt University in Sioux Center Dec. 9, 2023. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Rena Haley said that she and her brother have taken over their father’s role on the campaign trail in her mother’s bid for the Republican nomination, as Michael Haley, a major with the South Carolina National Guard, was deployed to Djibouti in eastern Africa in June.

“He used to always be that person for her in the front row at all four debates,” Rena said. “And so recently I took on that role of being that person for her in the front row. I know you probably won’t see it on TV, but she’ll smile at me, I’ll smile back at her. I’ll give her a thumbs up, help her get keep that energy going. And so that’s been really special because she’s always been so supportive of me and my brother. … I think the most special thing of all of it
is being able to support her like she’s been able to support me.”

The audience laughed when Karthik Ramaswamy told his dad “no,” that he did not want to take the microphone.

All of the candidates talked about how caring for their families informed their politics, telling the hundreds of people in the auditorium of the small Christian college about how they plan to bring their experience of being parents and spouses to the White House.

Feenstra, the Republican representative for Iowa’s conservative 4th Congressional District, also focused on the candidate’s personal relationship with faith and positions on defending “religious liberties” as an elected official.

As Florida governor, DeSantis said that he has upheld religious liberties not just by defending people’s ability to practice their religion, but by incorporating faith organizations into the public sphere. DeSantis pointed to his wife’s “Hope Florida” initiative, which directs people in need to community organizations like charities and churches for assistance instead of government assistance programs.

“These are difficult things where we’ve recognized that the faith community needs to be brought to the table to be able to deliver results for people,” DeSantis said. “You cannot do it through a bureaucracy, that is not going to give anybody a path to independence. … And a lot of these blue states will not work with their churches. They view that as just totally unacceptable. We disagree.”

He said Democrats are not just not incorporating faith-based groups in government enterprises, but are infringing on Americans’ abilities to freely exercise their religion. He pointed to the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, when the court ruled 6-3 that high school football coach Joe Kennedy’s First Amendment rights were violated when he lost his job for praying after games at the 50-yard line.

DeSantis said that while some people saw the court case as a victory, he believed the fact that the case had to be brought to the courts shows “religious liberty is not being honored in this country.” He said that Democrats are tolerant of people practicing religion privately, but that they do not allow people to express their faith in public life.

“I think what we’re battling nationwide is a view of the left that they believe, you know, they’ll say that if someone mentions God in the public square, or ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance that that’s ‘establishment of religion,’” DeSantis said. “That’s not what the Founding Fathers believed. But they really want to establish religion – it’s just a religion of secular leftism.”

Binkley, the founding pastor of Create Church in Richardson, Texas, said he wanted to bring Jesus Christ into politics by kicking off a movement based on Jesus’ message of “love your neighbor.” He called on Americans, especially young people and college students, to volunteer in order to address problems with education and poverty.

“I’ve been volunteering at my church for, in some way, 20 hours a week for a long time,” Binkley said. “If we give a few hours a week, we can change the culture of America. We can change the culture and the life of a child. We can change the world, let’s lead by example.”

Haley said that when she was recently asked to describe a time when faith “carried” her, she thought of her decision as South Carolina governor to hold a statewide “Day of Prayer” in 2015, shortly before the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The former GOP governor said she was criticized for the event at the time, but that “faith and readiness” helped South Carolina face the tragedy ahead.

“Looking back, I truly believe that state day of prayer was preparing us for the tragedy that was going to happen,” Haley said. “And I think it’s what saved us at the end of the day, because I think it really pulled the hearts of South Carolinians.”

Candidates’ family members join the stage at Feenstra fundraiser in Sioux Center
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy took the stage with his 3-year-old son Karthik Ramaswamy as he answered questions from U.S. Rep. Randy Feenstra about his campaign during a fundraising event in Sioux Center Dec. 9, 2023. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Ramaswamy, who is Hindu, was the only presidential candidate who did not identify as Christian speaking at the event. He told Feenstra and the crowd that if they were looking for a presidential candidate who would spread Christianity across America, he was not their candidate. But he said he would be a president who would stand with people of faith, who shares many of the same religious values and would protect the “Judeo-Christian values enshrined in our Constitution.”

“I think I am uniquely positioned to do it, because we are in a religiously diverse country, and we should want people of every faith to still stand for those same values,” Ramaswamy said. “… I think we want a president was able to stand for that and reach more than just Christians or people of any one faith with those values in the United States.”

The entrepreneur repeated a phrase he has used when discussing his faith at other events: he is running to be president, not pastor, of the United States.

“I think it’s good for our country when we see a difference between the role of president and pastor, because there’s a role for both in our national revival,” he said. “And I think that the role of a president right now is to revive our national identity … and then protect religious freedom in a way that we have not done well in the last 20 years, so that parents and pastors and teachers can step up and play their role as well.”

Former President Donald Trump, the current frontrunner in the race to become the 2024 Republican presidential nominee, did not appear at Feenstra’s event. Trump has skipped most campaign stops that have featured rival GOP candidates, including the Republican National Committee debates. The former president will be back in Iowa next week, holding a rally in Coralville Wednesday, Dec. 13.