1 of 6 | Casey DeSantis is joined Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds at Simpson Barn in Johnston, Iowa, for a Q&A-style discussion on Thursday. Photo by Joe Fisher/UPI
JOHNSTON, Iowa, July 6 (UPI) -- Florida first lady Casey DeSantis revived a 2022 state campaign movement on a national scale Thursday, launching Mamas for DeSantis in Iowa to drum up support for her husband Gov. Ron DeSantis' presidential campaign.
Casey DeSantis joined Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds at Simpson Barn in Johnston, Iowa, for a Q&A-style discussion. The seating for about 120 people was full, and there were some attendees left standing. Many of the crowd were women, but there were men and children in attendance, as well.
"We are going to launch the largest mobilization of moms and grandmothers across the United States of America to protect the innocence of our children and to protect the rights of parents," Casey DeSantis said to cheers.
The event started with the pair trading stories about motherhood. Casey DeSantis shared tales of chasing her three children through the Governor's Mansion as she attempted to protect its walls from crayons. Reynolds had similar stories about her grandchildren. They lauded the policies passed in each other's states and quipped that they borrow from one another in that regard.
From that point, the conversation was focused on the policy and the vision of a Ron DeSantis presidency, and how the mothers and grandmothers in attendance could help the Florida governor realize his goals. The theme of Casey DeSantis' message was shrinking government by whittling down the bureaucracy and cutting red tape. She also highlighted the importance of parents having a voice in what is taught in public schools.
Mamas for DeSantis rallied support for Ron DeSantis' Florida gubernatorial campaign last year. Thursday's event marks a new effort by the DeSantis campaign to close ground with former President Donald Trump by leaning on Casey DeSantis to appeal to influential parental-rights organizations.
Casey DeSantis said 1.1 million mothers and grandmothers signed up with Mamas For DeSantis during that campaign.
Thursday's event was her first solo one in Iowa after appearing with her husband onstage at Eternity Church in Clive in May. Reynolds also spoke at that event.
"I will crisscross the country if that is what's needed," Casey DeSantis said about campaigning for her husband. "I believe in him with every ounce of my being. We are going to go to Washington, D.C., and clean house. He is the man to do it."
Parental rights organizations have become a political player in recent years. Among the most notable groups, Moms For Liberty has a strong presence in central Iowa.
Jenn Turner, chair of the Polk County, Iowa, chapter, estimates her chapter has about 800 members. There are five chapters across the state and more than 200 across the country. Moms For Liberty members volunteered at Thursday's event as they did when the campaign was last in central Iowa. There were also several more members in attendance.
The organization was founded in 2021 in response to COVID-19 lockdowns and mask requirements. Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, who were members of the Brevard and Indian River County school boards in Florida, founded the organization.
Casey DeSantis recalled the advent of what she called the "parental empowerment revolution" similarly, adding that it was also a response to the "sexualized curriculum thrust in front of 5-year-olds" and "biological men competing against women."
Parental rights groups have since found themselves in the mix with policymakers in other Republican-led states on several high-profile laws. Many of those laws have restricted discussions about sexual orientation, gender identity and race in the classroom, and prohibited transgender students from using the bathroom that agrees with their gender identity.
Turner told UPI she and other members of Moms For Liberty spent a lot of time at Iowa's Capitol during the recent legislative session. Members have been included in several photo-ops with Reynolds at bill signings. Turner was there when Reynolds signed Senate File 496, a ban on discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in schools through sixth grade.
"It's all over the news because we are known as book banners, when that is not the case," Turner said. "We wanted age-appropriate materials in our schools and for parents to have access to knowing what is in the library."
The group has become notorious for challenging books. The organization disseminates a Powerpoint presentation that details the steps to getting books banned and highlights several titles the organization has targeted.
Among the categories of books targeted are those that include "alternate gender or sexual ideologies," "controversial cultural -- racial commentary" and "inflammatory racial commentary." The strategy advises members on what information to collect about a book, contacting news organizations and how to get schools and libraries to adopt stricter rating systems.
"Because many people know and love the book To Kill a Mockingbird, rating it was intended to be used as a reference point to showcase the rating system," a member of Utah's Mary in the Library group shares in the slideshow. "It worked, in conjunction with the below steps, to convince an Iowa school board to adopt our rating system."
During the 2022-23 school year, 3,301 books were targeted for censorship. Among the most notable titles was Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, which was challenged in Florida. More than half of the books challenged in 2022 included LGBTQ+ themes.
Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates have courted groups like Moms For Liberty, Parents Defending Education and Purple For Parents.
GOP presidential candidates Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy spoke at the Moms For Liberty national conference in Philadelphia over the Fourth of July weekend.
"In school board races, PTA meetings and town halls across the nation you have taught the radical-left Marxists and communists a lesson they will never forget: Don't mess with America's moms," Trump said. "You are joyful warriors. You are fierce, fierce patriots."
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Moms For Liberty an anti-government organization -- not a hate group.
Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director of research, reporting and analysis for the SPLC's Intelligence Project, told UPI the designation is used for groups that tend to be conspiracy-theory driven and believe in a tyrannical one-world government.
The SPLC has been researching right-wing groups and those who oppose civil rights like the Ku Klux Klan for more than 50 years.
"We've seen Moms For Liberty stand side by side with groups we do categorize as hate groups, like the Proud Boys in Florida and Tennessee," she said.
Anti-student inclusion groups, as the SPLC categorizes Moms for Liberty, typically claim they are focused on issues affecting schools. But Carroll Rivas said their demonstrations and policy activism are more broadly targeted at the LGBTQ+ community. They have led the public opposition against drag shows and other expressions of LGBTQ+ identity.
"One of the reasons we are worried about the movement is it's focused on our most precious folks, our youth," she said. "We see similarities to efforts of the past that used the youth to manipulate political discourse."
The Hamilton County, Ind., chapter of Moms for Liberty issued an apology after using a quote from Adolf Hitler in its June 21 newsletter.
The strategy these groups use to rally support is focused on exploiting divisive topics to claim positions of power, Carroll Rivas said. In this case, the positions of power begin with local school boards and local elections.
"It requires someone with time, money and a place to assert power from few over many and limit the rights of other people," she said. "This group and groups like them across the hard right look for spaces they can divide."
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an increase in anti-government militias, such as the patriot movement, the Freemen and Posse Comitatus. These groups were more explicitly racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic, Carroll Rivas said, but those sentiments are on the rise again.
"In the last five years, quite frankly during the Trump administration, we saw more anti-government groups saying these things again like they had in the 1980s," she said. "There has been a huge rise in talk of anti-Semitism at the same time by politicians and the Republican Party as a whole. It makes it difficult for the public to pull away when it is within mainstream politics."