There are certain prerequisites for presidential candidates competing in Iowa: Greet voters in the Pizza Ranch restaurants that dot the state. Recruit volunteers to make your case on a bitterly cold night when the caucuses are held. And meet with Bob Vander Plaats.
Vander Plaats, 48, is an influential leader among Iowa’s social conservatives and evangelicals, a key voting bloc that can deliver a victory in the first voting contest in the nation. He was the state chairman of Mike Huckabee’s ragtag 2008 campaign, which surprised many with its first-place finish here.
He was the public face of a successful effort last year to oust three state Supreme Court justices who decided to allow same-sex marriage. Nearly every candidate in the 2012 Republican campaign has chatted up Vander Plaats in hopes of winning his coveted endorsement — and access to a network of passionate party activists all across Iowa’s 99 counties.
But Vander Plaats is also a divisive and contradictory figure. Though he has two major political victories under his belt, he has also run for governor three times and lost. Though he is beloved by many social conservatives because of his ideological purity, establishment Republicans say he harms the party’s interests and is more concerned about building his own brand than helping conservatives win.
“Bob sees where the parade is going and jumps in front of it. I give him credit for that. You have to be nimble and quick,” said Doug Gross, who beat Vander Plaats in the 2002 GOP gubernatorial primary but lost in the general election. “My biggest issue with Bob, I think he’s ambitious and articulate but not particularly deep. He doesn’t seem very authentic. The more someone tells me how they’re doing this for public service, it’s usually in service for themselves.”
Vander Plaats worked as a teacher and high school principal. After the birth of his son Lucas, now 18, who has severe disabilities, he became chief executive of a nonprofit group that provided rehabilitation services for the disabled, and he eventually became involved in politics.
But he never sought a city council, school board or legislative seat. Instead, he went straight for governor, failing in 2002, 2006 and 2010. After the last primary loss, against Gov. Terry Branstad, he became the president of the Family Leader, a coalition of antiabortion and anti-gay-marriage groups in Iowa aimed at increasing their influence in the 2012 caucuses. He reportedly makes a six-figure income.
The man and the organization have already made themselves a force in the 2012 campaign. They held a presidential lecture series this year, in which Vander Plaats squired presidential candidates around the state to large gatherings of social conservatives. Nearly every candidate has sought his advice.
They are hosting a crucial forum Saturday in Des Moines, where all of the major candidates competing in Iowa except Mitt Romney will sit around a faux Thanksgiving dinner table and discuss their values in front of more than 1,000 influential pastors and party activists.
“I’ve heard all their speeches,” Vander Plaats said. “I’m not so concerned in just a replay of your speech. For me, I am not even so concerned about what you think. I’m concerned about why do you think what you think? Why do you believe what you believe? When we can determine a person’s foundation and baseline about why they believe what they believe, no matter what comes at them if they are elected to the highest office in the land, we can have a pretty good predictor of how they would respond.”
The group and its leaders have been lauded for their reach — the Washington publication the Hill named Vander Plaats one of the nation’s 10 most-coveted GOP endorsements, along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.
But the effort has not been without missteps. This year, the group called on presidential candidates to sign a petition against gay marriage. But the document also claimed that black children born under slavery were more likely to have two-parent families than those born under the nation’s first black president — a statement widely interpreted as saying that black children were better off under slavery. It was sharply criticized by mainstream conservatives and was removed after the flare-up.
In response to the petition, Republican Jeff Kaufmann, speaker pro tem of the Iowa House of Representatives, emailed Vander Plaats and others who lead the organization: “Guys your integrity is in question and your political credibility is waning to the point of no impact.”
His criticism and others’ is grounded in the notion that Vander Plaats will sacrifice conservative gains for ideological purity, all aimed at making Vander Plaats a kingmaker.
They point to Vander Plaats’ campaign against a Republican effort to bar abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy; conservatives said it would reduce abortions, but Vander Plaats thought it would give a measure of support to early-stage abortions. They also cite his refusal to endorse Branstad after losing to him in the 2010 gubernatorial primary.
Vander Plaats said such feelings were not surprising, given his refusal to adhere to the party line.
“Passions will run high on anybody when they are sincere about their issues,” he said. “Where passions run high for me is because they know I’m not going to sell out. They know that whether marriage, life, the economy or limited government, they know I’ll hold true.”
After the forum Saturday, the Family Leader and Vander Plaats will decide whether to make an endorsement in the race. If Vander Plaats does, he will seek a leave from his post to stump for his candidate.
“My biggest thing, if I really feel compelled to get involved, is to not sit on the sidelines,” he said. “If there’s going to be a candidate that needs to be coalesced around, there’s a lot of work to be done. We will … provide anything and everything we could for them.”