Q&A: Bob Vander Plaats, Iowa’s Social Conservative Kingmaker

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Charles Dharapak / AP

Three-time Iowa GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats speaks to reporters about the Ames Straw Poll in Des Moines, Iowa, Aug. 9, 2011.

Pleasant Hill, Iowa

Bob Vander Plaats is a 48-year-old former high-school principal, three-time failed candidate for Iowa’s governorship and the head of a Des Moines-area Christian conservative advocacy group called the FAMiLY LEADER. On the national stage, Vander Plaats, who chaired Mike Huckabee’s Hawkeye State efforts four years ago, is known mostly for his unabashed crusades against gay marriage. After the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage in 2009, he spearheaded a successful campaign to oust the three justice on the ballot the following year. One of the state’s most prominent social conservatives, he’s also one of its political kingmakers, a coveted endorsement and a gatekeeper to the ardent network of activists that dominate the Iowa caucuses.

The FAMily LEADER (the lower-case i is meant to signify the individual’s humility before God) includes a nonprofit wing and a political-action committee, and regularly holds candidate events and lectures, including an upcoming presidential forum on Nov. 19. Candidates catering to the conservative base shun him at their peril — and he likes them to know it.

Vander Plaats’ outsize role in the caucus process (which in turn plays an outsize role in the nominating process) inflames plenty of conservatives, who consider him a political opportunist given to dangling his connections to inflate his brand. That accusation is far kinder than those emanating from the political left, and in recent months Vander Plaats has fed the criticism, calling homosexuality a “public health risk” and asking candidates to sign a sweeping “marriage vow” that some construed as suggesting that the plight of African-American families under slavery was better than their condition today. At his office in a Des Moines suburb, Vander Plaats addressed those controversies, broke down the keys to the caucuses and handicapped the field for TIME. Lightly edited excerpts follow:

Which candidate is best positioned to succeed at the caucuses?

The caucuses benefit those who show up. A Huntsman isn’t going to do well here. However, Romney might. The field is so different in ’12 than ’08. In ’08 you had McCain, you had Romney, Giuiliani, Fred Thompson. Huckabee was kind of the outlier, so it was easier for our base to coalesce around Huckabee. In ’12 you have Bachmann, Santorum, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Paul–all pretty much going after the same base. Our base.

And so Romney, who is dancing on the proverbial line of how to play Iowa, could end up being the outlier. As the [social conservatives] break up amongst themselves, if Romney just holds steady he could win an Iowa caucus. It’s a big risk for Romney. He may start playing in Iowa more if he sees there’s an opening. If Romney wins Iowa, most of us political pundits don’t know who’s going to stop him.

I imagine that would be dismaying to you. He didn’t sign your marriage pledge.

He didn’t, which is totally up to him. He is on record as supporting the federal amendment defining marriage as one man, one woman. We applaud that. I’m not so sure he’s coming to that conclusion by the right reasons. But at least he’s saying there’s a need.

You’ve said the American republic is founded on the twin rungs of religion and morality. Does that religion need to be the Christian religion?

Several founders made that comment. What they’re talking about is belief in a higher standard, a God. Mitt Romney definitely believes that. He happens to believe it in a different fashion than I do, but he definitely believes in it. Romney didn’t lose Iowa last time because he’s a Mormon. That’s a crutch that doesn’t walk. He was leading the polls big-time in Iowa [in 2008]. Iowans liked Mitt Romney initially. He just didn’t wear on people well, because there was an inconsistency in his message.

How do you expect the caucus process to unfold?

What you saw in the Iowa straw poll is a little bit how the caucus will play out. Michele Bachmann spent a lot of time here.  She didn’t waver from her core convictions. Her experience matched up with her rhetoric. And she doesn’t represent politics as usual. Now does the straw poll win translate into being the caucus winner? Absolutely not. She has a lot of work to do.

Can she repeat Huckabee’s blueprint from four years ago, drawing on passionate grassroots conservatives without a traditional organizational structure?

She absolutely can. Bachmann has more resources than Huckabee did. If she’s able to bring a structure to her army, she’s going to be a player in this caucus. Rick Santorum really has the opportunity to be a Huckabee in this race. He’s catching on late, but Iowa breaks late.

How does Rick Perry’s entrance into the race change things?

He shifts the dynamic. He’s governor of a large state, has a good story to tell, looks presidential. But he had a bad week last week. Right now there’s a lot of conservatives who were running to Perry who are now, at minimum, pausing – or running to somebody else.

Can you explain why the HPV issue is so damaging to him?

He’s created legislation by executive order; we have an issue with that. The forced inoculation of young girls basically gives permission that if you’re going to have sex, go ahead but be safe about it. That’s an issue to us. Use your bullypulpit all you want, but let parents make that decision, not the government of Texas. There’s a third element everybody has an issue with, which is whether this was a pay-to-play. There are a lot of things in there he’ll never clear up in a sixty-second answer in a debate. That’s why he needs to show up here.

Have any of the candidates taken positions that are simply deal-breakers for you?

So far I don’t think there’s anybody with a deal-breaker. Our big thing is what your core values are as they relate to life, to marriage, to the Constitution. Once there’s trust developed, then we want to hear your pro-family vision for the country. The third is can you beat Obama. It’s a three-step dance: first trust, then vision, and then to electability.

Iowans will reward persistence, consistency and integrity. Coming out and doing all the forums. Getting in front of as many Iowans as you can. Getting shoulder to shoulder with other candidates. They also want bold leadership they can trust. We used to ask, Can you beat Barack Obama? I think there’s a lot of us who think any one of these guys can beat Barack Obama in the environment today. So let’s get the right one.

Obviously withholding your endorsement for now enhances your ability to affect the race by forcing people to come to you, and training the spotlight on the issues you care about.

Yeah. That’s not the reason we’re withholding the endorsement. A lot of people who endorsed Tim Pawlenty have said they never would have endorsed him if they knew he would [drop out and then support Romney.] A lot of people have said they made a mistake in running to Perry – then they found out about the Gardasil, the illegal immigration, supporting Giuliani and the TARP bailout. We believe in doing the proper vetting process. We probably want to break after [the Family Leader presidential] forum on Nov. 19. Our endorsement is going to count. We’re not just going to be a name on a page.

Your marriage pledge stirred up a lot of controversy.

Our marriage pledge received some controversy because of the African American thing, which to me was absurd. There was no way, shape or form that we ever would believe that slavery was better for families than today. But you can’t ignore the data that 70% of African-American kids are born out of wedlock. We think that’s a good thing? If you ever want limited government or a thriving economy, you can’t erode the family.

That’s how you justify including issues like deficit reduction and opposition to Sharia law in your “marriage vow”?

We believe these things have a huge impact on the family. Anything that impacts the family is very important to us. So the economy is very important to us. Constitutional principles, life and limited governance are very important to us.

Prominent conservatives also took issue with the pledge, and said it risks undermining the credibility of your organization.

We’re going to have detractors from the right and the left. We’re not playing RINO politics. For any one of those to be a credible conservative, I’d ask them what bullet point they have the problem with.

You also said homosexuality was a public health risk. What evidence do you have to support that assertion?

You’re talking about how it was compared to second-hand smoking? It was never this organization’s intent to say that if Bob is gay and Alex is not, Bob is going to be a health risk to Alex. I get asked all the time how same-sex marriage impacts my marriage. I say it doesn’t. But that’s the wrong question. How’s it going to impact the next generation? The reason we have a national debt is because you’re looking at yourself, not the next generation. With marriage, when you walk away from God’s design, there’s going to be serious ramifications. For us, it comes down to God’s design: one man, one woman. Anything outside that, we preach abstinence and purity. If everybody practiced that, we’d have a whole different culture today. A much better culture.