Trump, DeSantis go head-to-head at key conservative group summits in DC

Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a South Dakota Republican party rally in Rapid City, South Dakota, September 8, 2023.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Former President Donald Trump is set to deliver a pair of headline speeches Friday night at two socially conservative Christian groups’ gatherings in Washington, D.C., his first trip to the nation’s capital since his criminal arraignment last month.

Trump’s top Republican rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is also scheduled to speak at the two summits hosted by the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee and the Family Research Council.

At the concerned women’s conference, DeSantis leaned into his gubernatorial record as an eager instigator of high-profile fights against progressive social policies that he grouped under the banner of “woke ideology.”

The left is trying to “use our schools to indoctrinate our kids” and engage in “social experimentation, like trying to jam men into women’s sports,” he said, pulling a murmur of agreement from the crowd of roughly 270 group members.

The women’s group, which espouses staunch opposition to abortion, gay marriage and a progressive view of transgender rights, bills itself as the nation’s largest public policy women’s organization. The Family Research Council takes a similarly hard-line tack on social issues.

Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama also spoke to the women’s group, among others including a “pro-life activist” and a “detransition activist.”

Three other GOP primary candidates — former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — were invited but have not been confirmed to speak, according to the group’s event website.

Pence and Ramaswamy were both slated to speak at the Family Research Council’s “Pray Vote Stand” summit, however.

Pence, an evangelical Christian who often invokes his faith in his political speech, unveiled what he called a “plan to rebuild the American family.”

He laid out a four-pronged strategy that aims to “encourage marriage” — Pence is an opponent of same-sex marriage — end “transgender ideology,” give parents more options for schooling their children and further challenge abortion rights.

“Save the babies and we’ll save America,” he said.

Women in the GOP primary

In a different political moment, Trump’s personal baggage on women’s issues might be a liability for him in the GOP primary.

One of his four active criminal cases is focused on hush money paid to a porn star who alleges she had an extramarital affair with Trump, which he denies.

In May, he was found liable for sexually abusing the writer E. Jean Carroll and ordered to pay $5 million in her civil rape and defamation case. Trump has also been found liable for defaming Carroll in a similar separate case, which is nevertheless set to head to trial in January.

More than a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct.

Meanwhile, former first lady Melania Trump has been absent from the campaign trail — a stark contrast with Casey DeSantis, who is regularly by her husband’s side as he crisscrosses key primary states.

Casey DeSantis is also taking a lead role in “Mamas for DeSantis,” a campaign initiative aimed at mothers. Trump’s campaign has no clear matching platform: searches for “women, “woman” or “mother” on his “Agenda47” campaign policy page yield no results.

CNBC Politics

And yet, national polls of the Republican primary field give Trump a commanding lead among both men and women.

A Quinnipiac University survey released Wednesday, for instance, showed 58% of Republican or Republican-leaning women backing Trump in the presidential primary, compared with 64% of their male counterparts.

Just 14% of women in the same group picked DeSantis, while 5% chose former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, the only woman in the running for the GOP nomination.

The poll also showed that while Trump and President Joe Biden are in a dead heat overall, the Democratic incumbent holds a double-digit edge over Trump among women registered voters: 56% said they would pick Biden in an election against Trump, who was chosen by 37% of respondents.

Part of that split may be attributable to Trump’s role in last year’s hugely consequential Supreme Court decision striking down the constitutional right to an abortion that had been upheld by Roe v. Wade for nearly a half-century.

The three conservative justices appointed by Trump all voted to strike down Roe. The ruling instantly became a rallying cry for Democrats, who went on to outperform expectations in the 2022 midterm elections.

A large majority of U.S. adults still say they disapprove of the highly unpopular court’s decision, recent surveys have shown.

But the women’s group Trump is addressing Friday has strongly cheered the decision, with Penny Nance, the organization’s president, calling it a “huge victory for human rights and life.”

Trump’s DC case

Trump was last in D.C. in early August for his arraignment on federal charges stemming from special counsel Jack Smith’s probe of the former president’s efforts to overturn his loss in the 2020 election.

Trump pleaded not guilty to a four-count indictment accusing him and several co-conspirators of illegally perpetrating three criminal conspiracies to try to subvert the election results. He was arraigned at a federal courthouse just a few minutes’ walk from the U.S. Capitol, the scene of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot by thousands of Trump’s supporters who temporarily halted the peaceful transfer of presidential power.

One of Trump’s alleged conspiracies involved an effort to impede Congress from confirming Biden’s victory at the Capitol on Jan. 6. As the scene devolved into a violent riot, Trump and his allies “exploited the disruption” to further their conspiracy, Smith alleged in the indictment.

The case is set for trial next March.

Trump’s latest appearance in D.C. will take place at a hotel ballroom a few blocks from the White House Ellipse. Shortly before the riot kicked off on Jan. 6, Trump held a “Stop the Steal” rally at that site, urging his followers to march to the Capitol and pressure GOP lawmakers to reject key electoral votes.

The D.C. indictment was the first of two separate criminal cases charging Trump with trying to reverse his election loss. The other, a sweeping state-level case in Georgia, has yet to set a trial date for Trump and many of his co-defendants.

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