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Donald Trump Tests the Iowa Evangelical Faithful
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Donald Trump Tests the Iowa Evangelical Faithful

Plus: Corruption charges against Sen. Bob Menendez shake up next year’s New Jersey Senate race.

Former president Donald Trump speaks during a rally on September 20, 2023, in Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Happy Monday! T-minus six days until a government shutdown, unless Congress gets its act together this week. Anyone think they’ll avoid it?

Up to Speed

  • New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and his wife were indicted in federal court Friday on felony bribery charges, with the government alleging he illegally used his perch atop the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to enrich several state businessmen and benefit the Egyptian government. Federal agents who searched the Menendez home in June 2022 found nearly a half million dollars in cash squirreled away in various places, and prosecutors allege the bribes also included “gold bars, payments toward a home mortgage, compensation for a low-or-no-show job, a luxury vehicle and other items of value.”  
  • Menendez, who previously dodged federal corruption charges in 2017 after a hung jury ended in a mistrial, announced he would temporarily step down from his role as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. In a statement on Friday, he added that “the facts are not as presented” and insisted he would not resign. “It is not lost on me how quickly some are rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat. I am not going anywhere,” he wrote.
  • Despite negotiations continuing through the weekend, and with just one week to go until a government shutdown, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is no closer to budging the stubborn holdouts in his caucus. McCarthy has tried to characterize his proposed stopgap funding package—which would fund the government for a few more months with 8 percent cuts to the bulk of federal discretionary spending—as simply a mechanism to buy more time for the House to pass a full suite of appropriations bills. Several of those appropriations bills will come to the floor this week.
  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will hold an Arizona fundraiser today with a who’s who of the state party’s old guard of more moderate, Trump-skeptical Republicans. They include former Gov. Doug Ducey, former Sen. Jon Kyl, 2022 gubernatorial candidate Karrin Taylor Robson, and Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill.
  • Meanwhile, Kari Lake—the onetime unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate and the most prominent ambassador of Arizona’s insurgent MAGA coalition—is planning to launch a run for independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s seat in the coming weeks, Politico reported last week. Blake Masters, who failed to unseat Sen. Mark Kelly in last year’s midterms, is unlikely to run again should Lake enter the race.

In Iowa, Trump Tests Pastors’ Political Reach

DES MOINES, Iowa—As he pivots toward the center on abortion policy, Donald Trump isn’t just giving pro-life activists headaches. He’s also testing the political power of a previously formidable constituency: Iowa’s evangelical pastors.

Faith leaders across the state, site of next year’s first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses, have reacted with dismay to recent remarks in which the former president positioned himself as a compromise-broker between Republicans and Democrats. Trump also castigated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for signing a state ban on most abortions after six weeks.

“He gets to wear the mantle of the most pro-life president in modern history,” Mike Demastus, executive pastor of The Fort church in Fort Des Moines, tells The Dispatch. “But what many evangelicals feel like right now is, it’s almost like he’s pushing us two steps backwards. Like he’s doing that intentionally—‘Don’t get too close, I’ve gotta deal with this crowd over here.’”

“I understand that Donald Trump approaches it from what he would call political realities,” adds Terry Amann, pastor of Des Moines’ Church of the Way. “Donald Trump might say, well, people can’t get elected. Well, you’re Donald Trump! You can get elected, right? So you’re telling us now that you have an Achilles heel? Because that doesn’t sound like the language that you use, Donald Trump.”

Demastus and Amann are both affiliated with Faith Wins, a South Carolina-based nonprofit that earlier this year empaneled a group of Iowa pastors to offer spiritual care to the Republican presidential candidates—and vet where they stand on faith-adjacent issues. Many of the candidates, including Trump, have met with the group in recent months, and will do so again going into the caucus.

“He can’t take [evangelicals] for granted,” Demastus says. “He just cannot. And he does it—he only does it frankly at his electoral peril.”

But how much Trump needs to fear that peril remains to be seen.

Iowa’s Republican caucuses have long been dominated by socially conservative evangelicals, whom exit polls estimated made up 64 percent of all caucusgoers in 2016. And they’ve repeatedly flocked to candidates—from Mike Huckabee in 2008 to Rick Santorum in 2012 to Ted Cruz in 2016—who both wore their Christian faith on their sleeve and staked themselves to evangelicals’ key social issues. Chief among them was an opposition to legal abortion.

But the waters have grown muddier since 2016. After initial skepticism, most evangelicals became staunchly supportive of Trump during his first term. And abortion is no longer the front-and-center voting issue even for many social conservatives, who find themselves increasingly preoccupied with worries about educational indoctrination, transgender ideology, and other, vaguer feelings of leftist cultural siege.

Moreover, the electorate itself is changing in significant ways. In Iowa, caucusing has always been something like the hobby of a unique political class, a labor-intensive and therefore low-participation affair in which Iowans who care enough to do so go to the mats to see every candidate, shake every hand, learn every policy position in order to make an informed choice.

Talk to Trump supporters in the state, though, and you’ll often encounter an interesting fact: Many have never caucused before.

Typical of this newly activated sort are Philo and Shelly Ostrum of Dallas County, which encapsulates the suburbs west of Des Moines. They’d always paid casual attention to politics, always voted in general elections, but decided to get more actively involved ahead of last year’s midterms, volunteering to knock doors, phone bank, and table for their county party. Two years later, they’re doing so again for the Trump campaign in Iowa.

“Now our children are getting affected, and our grandchildren, so we’re really heavy into it now,” Shelly tells The Dispatch. “Our border crisis, our economy … The schools, the education, the indoctrination of the school.” Philo cuts in: “Boys using girls’ restrooms.”

“We do listen to the other candidates, but we know what Trump can do, because he’s done it,” Shelly goes on.

The Ostrums aren’t with Trump on abortion. In fact, their views on that subject exactly mirror the Florida legislation Trump has panned: They think the practice should be illegal after a heartbeat can be detected, except in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother. It’s just not their first issue in the race.

“Not everything’s gonna be a hundred percent with what he does,” Shelly says, “but I don’t think that’s gonna sway my vote.”

Menendez Indictment Draws Condemnations, New Challenger

Your average dirty politician, having escaped by a hair’s breadth a battery of federal felony convictions, might resolve to walk the straight and narrow for a while. But Sen. Bob Menendez, if prosecutors are to be believed, spent the happy afterglow of his 2017 mistrial getting busy trading favors to a whole new crew of wealthy friends and foreigners—which, in addition to the eye-popping heap of physical evidence in the government’s unsealed indictment, might explain why New Jersey Democrats moved so quickly to denounce Menendez this time around. 

“The alleged facts are so serious that they compromise the ability of Sen. Menendez to effectively represent the people of our state,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a Friday statement. “Therefore, I am calling for his immediate resignation.”

Other New Jersey Democrats did the same, including Reps. Bill Pascrell, Frank Pallone, Mikie Sherrill, and Josh Gottheimer, as well as state party chair LeRoy Jones Jr. Menendez’s junior Senate counterpart, Sen. Cory Booker, has so far refrained from piling on.

The facts of his misconduct, as laid out in the federal indictment, are startlingly gaudy, with Menendez accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from a well-connected Egyptian-American businessman to wield his considerable influence on U.S.-Egypt foreign policy. He is also accused of occasionally disclosing sensitive government information on the future course of that policy to the same businessman, with his wife acting as intermediary. 

The indictment news isn’t just an embarrassment for Democrats—it’s also an electoral headache, as Menendez is up for reelection in 2024. Voters didn’t punish Menendez for his recent scandals during his 2018 reelection, when he was reelected by a margin of 12 points. But the alleged malfeasance was less glaring during that race, and Menendez had enjoyed the full support of the rest of his party across the state in the wake of his mistrial.

The indictment news has already drawn at least one new challenger into the race: Rep. Andy Kim, a three-term Democrat notable for winning multiple elections in Trump districts. 

“After calls to resign, Sen. Menendez said ‘I am not going anywhere,’” Kim tweeted Saturday. “As a result, I feel compelled to run against him. Not something I expected to do, but NJ deserves better. We cannot jeopardize the Senate or compromise our integrity.”

Notable and Quotable

“When did we walk away from the fabric of our Constitution, that everybody has a presumption of innocence before anything else? So I don’t think he should resign.” 

—Rep. George Santos, who is also currently under federal indictment for financial crimes, on the charges against Sen. Bob Menendez, September 24, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.