DES MOINES, Iowa — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy each shared emotional stories about their wives having miscarriages during an evangelical Christian forum Friday afternoon in Iowa, as they and rival Nikki Haley shared a stage while speaking to a key voting bloc in the first caucus state.
“I actually haven’t shared this story before,” said Ramaswamy, his voice quivering slightly as he described the moment he and his wife Apoorva learned their first child was on the way while she was doing her medical residency in New York City.
“About three and a half months in … one day she woke up, she was bleeding. She had a miscarriage. We lost our first child,” Ramaswamy said.
Moments earlier, DeSantis described his family’s experience with miscarriage.
DeSantis spoke about a trip he and his wife, Casey, took to Israel early in their marriage, where the Florida governor said the couple prayed for a child.
“We go back to the United States, and a little time later, we got pregnant,” DeSantis said. “But unfortunately, we lost that first baby.”
It’s the first time both Ramaswamy and DeSantis have shared these stories publicly on the campaign trail. They came out as part of the Family Leader Thanksgiving Family Forum, an event put on by the organization’s leader, Bob Vander Plaats, a power broker in Iowa GOP politics who has endorsed a number of past winners of the state’s GOP caucuses.
Vander Plaats asked each of the three candidates about what he saw as their biggest challenge to success in the Iowa caucuses. “I think it’s only fair to address what I believe is your highest hurdle,” Vander Plaats.
Ramaswamy, who is Hindu, was asked about his faith as he campaigns in the heavily Christian state. DeSantis got more of a softball, with the Family Leader CEO saying, “The biggest question is, why doesn’t he just wait his turn? Why doesn’t he wait his turn, stay being governor of Florida? Why is this your time? Why is this, the time is now? Because you’re gonna have to make that close by Jan. 15.”
Haley didn’t get off as easily. “In the Miami debate … you gave an impassioned answered on life,” Vander Plaats said of Haley’s answer on abortion during the third GOP debate. “You talked about how to message it and that we’re deeply divided.”
“I had some pro-lifers say, that sounded like a pro-choice answer,” Vander Plaats continued. “Can you assure them why that’s not a pro-choice answer?”
Haley responded the same way she did on the debate stage, reiterating, “I don’t judge anyone for being pro-choice, but I don’t want them to judge me for being pro-life.” But she also said she would have signed a six-week ban on abortion in her home state of South Carolina if that’s what voters wanted.
Evangelical Christians are a key group of voters in Iowa, with about two-thirds of Republican voters in the 2016 Iowa caucuses identified as evangelical or born-again Christians, according to the NBC News entrance poll that year. Recent caucus winners have typically won evangelicals, including Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016, who outperformed Donald Trump by 12 points on his way to a narrow victory, according to the survey.
Now, Trump’s 2024 rivals took the stage at another event the former president has skipped, along with every Republican presidential debate so far, seeking inroads with a group that could decide the course of next year’s presidential contest. DeSantis and others have made it their mission to stop Trump in the early states before he can build momentum and inevitability around his comeback candidacy.
The event was almost torpedoed by the Republican National Committee, whose rules put it in danger of not even happening just two weeks ago.
GOP presidential hopefuls invited to the event received a letter from the RNC reminding them of a pledge they signed promising not to participate in any debates that weren’t sanctioned by the RNC.
“Any Republican presidential candidate who participates in this or other similar events will be deemed to have violated this pledge and will be disqualified from taking part in any future RNC-sanctioned presidential primary debates,” the letter read.
But after a mini-rebellion from DeSantis, among others, Vander Plaats and the RNC ended up coming to an agreement that the event would not devolve into a debate and the candidates could attend under strict rules. As Vander Plaats described it: “All candidates will gather around the Thanksgiving Table for a moderated conversation regarding the future of the country and why they are best to lead. No talking points. No digs.”
By and large, DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamy respected the forum’s format, though Haley and Ramaswamy’s frosty relationship was on full display leading up to the event. Just hours before the Family Forum, Ramaswamy attacked Haley during a campaign stop in Iowa City. “I worry that whether it’s Biden or whether it’s Haley, they will send your kids to die so they can buy a bigger house,” said the businessman.
But during the Thanksgiving Family Forum itself, the two behaved amicably. Ramaswamy added more depth to his story about his wife’s miscarriage, noting that a few months later, Apoorva was pregnant again — but had a scare while operating on a patient at a hospital in New York. “She gets a pinprick, draws blood,” said Ramaswamy, explaining that the patient was positive for HIV and hepatitis B. “She goes into antiretroviral therapy, gets a hepatitis B vaccination again.”
“A month or so later, then I get the call that we dreaded,” Ramaswamy went on. “She’s crying, she’s bleeding.”
“The next day, I was waiting for a call. She goes in for the doctor’s appointment. I get the call. She’s crying, I’m getting ready to console her, and she said they found a heartbeat. And that was our son. That was our Karthick,” said a relieved Ramaswamy, sharing his family’s intimate and traumatic experience.
Despite the personal tone of some of the questions and answers, Vander Plaats’ promise of “no digs” didn’t quite come to pass. While the knives weren’t out for one another, DeSantis did take jabs at Trump.
“I’m going to be a disciplined and focused leader in a way that obviously Donald Trump is not,” said DeSantis in response to Vander Plaats’ question about why he shouldn’t wait his turn. “I view his candidacy as high risk with low reward because I think as a lame duck with poor personnel and the distractions, it’s going to be hard for him to get this done,” he added.