Republican voters are keyed in on prices, government spending and other domestic issues in the 2024 presidential race — but there’s one foreign policy issue that is especially important to them, too.
The Israel-Hamas war could play a big role in how voters approach the Iowa Republican caucuses on Jan. 15. For evangelical Christians who dominate the Republican electorate in the state, the security of Israel is about more than foreign policy: It’s about God’s will.
“Ever since God created the nation of Israel, Satan has tried to wipe her out,” bellowed Mike Augsburger, lead pastor at Soteria Baptist church in West Des Moines, Iowa, at a Sunday morning service in October. “The nation of Israel is critical for bringing Jesus back and putting him on that throne to Jerusalem,” he told congregants, which included GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.
It’s a message long echoed at evangelical churches throughout the Hawkeye State. But the sermon had a new sense of urgency following Hamas’ attack on Israel, which sparked weeks of Israeli military attacks on Gaza.
Inflation, immigration and government spending are by far the top issues Iowa Republicans are thinking about as they consider candidates in 2024, according to the new NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll. But the Israel-Hamas war is the only other issue that more than half of Iowa Republicans ranked as “extremely important” to them — ahead of other foreign policy issues including relations with China and the Russia-Ukraine war.
Foreign policy isn’t typically front of mind for American voters. But for evangelicals, Israel is part of their faith as well as foreign policy. And about two-thirds of voters in the 2016 GOP Iowa caucus identified as evangelical or born-again Christians, according to the NBC News exit poll.
“To the extent that evangelicals do have that sense of loyalty and common cause with Israel, yeah — it’s gonna play a big role in Iowa,” said Dave Kochel, a Republican political strategist and native Iowan who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and Jeb Bush’s 2016 effort.
Ryan Binkley is a little-known Republican presidential candidate and evangelical pastor from Texas. He said Christians must understand that modern-day Israel is part of God’s plan. “It’s so important for a lot of people to understand the significance and the importance of biblical prophecy of Israel becoming a nation again,” Binkley explained. “It’s obviously biblical, prophetic history that Israel is a nation again at all,” he said, referencing the books of Ezekiel and Zechariah.
Kerry Yech, a pastor at New Hope Christian Church in Marshalltown, Iowa, said he believes Jesus will return to Earth once more: “When he returns the second time, he will rule over all over the world from Israel, from Jerusalem more specifically.”
Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of the Family Leader Foundation, a politically active evangelical organization, worked on Mike Huckabee’s campaign in 2008 when he won the Iowa caucuses and endorsed winners Rick Santorum in 2012 and Ted Cruz in 2016. He said, “Those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed,” referencing the Book of Genesis. “The nation is very important to God. And so it’s very important to us as believers.”
Kochel said that these voters “want someone who is standing foursquare behind Israel and is willing to support them,” emphasizing the importance of the issue in the upcoming caucuses. The longtime Iowa Republican strategist believes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley have an opportunity to flex their experiences amid the conflict.
So far, it looks like Iowa voters are giving weight to Haley’s two years of experience at the U.N. A majority, 52%, of Iowa Republicans say they think former President Donald Trump would do the best job handling the Israel-Hamas war. Haley was in second place at 22%, followed by DeSantis at 9%.
Susan Bernau, 74, from West Des Moines, Iowa, is an evangelical Christian and a Republican who’s supported Trump in the 2016 Iowa caucuses and never looked back. Bernau said it’s paramount that whoever the president is come 2024, that they ensure God’s destiny that Israel is a Jewish state.
“That’s been their land since God gave it to him way back in the days of Abraham, so it’s just fulfilling their destiny by having their own country,” Bernau said. “I’d rather be for a religion of peace than for one of kill the infidels,” she said of her support of Israel in the war with Hamas.
Kochel said Bernau’s favorite candidate, Trump, has credit in the bank among evangelical voters after declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel in 2017, a political coup for Israelis and American evangelicals alike.
But he warned that Trump may have damaged his reputation after lashing out at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just days after Hamas’ horrific attack.
“There’s definitely some head-scratching when he criticizes Bibi Netanyahu just days after the most violent and inhuman terror attack in Israeli history,” Kochel said.