Political Power Broker
Iowa’s Bob Vander Plaats influences presidential race
by Duane Beeson
As national media converged upon Iowa in the months leading up to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, Bob Vander Plaats ’85 was called “Iowa’s social conservative king” by Time magazine, the state’s “go-to guy” by the Wall Street Journal, and one of the country’s 10 most coveted endorsements by The Hill.
By the time the candidates and media had moved on to South Carolina and Florida, those labels seemed to have been accurate. Vander Plaats announced his endorsement of Rick Santorum two weeks prior to the Iowa caucuses, at a time when the former Pennsylvania senator was polling about 5 percent. Santorum was eventually declared Iowa’s winner with 24.6 percent of the vote.
“There is no question Bob made a difference,” says Jamie Johnson, Santorum’s Iowa coalitions director. “His endorsement helped put us over the top.”
In a congratulatory phone call, Donald Trump gave Vander Plaats some friendly chastising when the Iowan deflected praise for Santorum’s victory. “Have you ever watched my show?” asked the star of The Apprentice. “You should take the credit.”
Vander Plaats’ rise to political power broker wasn’t foreseen by those who knew the lanky Sheldon, Iowa, native decades ago. B.J. Mulder ’85, one of his Red Raider basketball teammates, saw in Vander Plaats strong leadership qualities, a good dose of confidence and an unparalleled work ethic, but he didn’t envision him as a politician. “He was always very passionate. You knew whatever he decided to do, he was going to give it 110 percent.”
Vander Plaats embarked upon a career in education. In 1993, while he was principal of Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn High School, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union filed suit against MMC and another school district to try to prevent student-initiated commencement prayers. Vander Plaats recalls being grilled for an hour on the stand in federal district court, with the judge focusing on his background as a graduate of Christian schools. “He thought my purpose was to proselytize,” he says. The districts won on appeal two days before graduation.
That year, Vander Plaats and his wife, Darla (Granstra ’85), welcomed their third of four sons. Lucas was born with a severe, rare brain disorder. Today Vander Plaats calls him a “dynamic blessing. If it hadn’t been for the miracle of Lucas, we would have never looked beyond where we were.”
A few years later, Vander Plaats became CEO of Opportunities Unlimited, a Sioux City agency that provides rehabilitative services for individuals with disabilities such as brain or spinal cord injuries. While in that role, Vander Plaats was appointed to the state’s Advisory Council on Brain Injuries.
Vander Plaats’ insight into government’s role in education and human services ignited a new interest in politics. “I saw us funding bureaucracy, not needs. Too often it didn’t make sense philosophically and wasn’t smart economically. I felt the state needed leadership from the outside.”
He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2002. He also ran in 2006, until he withdrew to become Jim Nussle’s running mate in another losing effort. In 2010, he ran again and garnered 41 percent of the vote, losing to Terry Branstad.
Normally, Vander Plaats admits, losing candidates lose influence. But he gained some clout when he chaired Mike Huckabee’s surprising win in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. And he parlayed his conservative credentials into a successful 2010 campaign to ouster three members of the Iowa Supreme Court who had voted to overturn Iowa’s Defense of Marriage Act, resulting in the legalization of same-sex marriages.
After the vote, Vander Plaats became president of the Family Leader, an umbrella organization that includes groups such as the Iowa Family Policy Center and a political action committee. The Family Leader organized a lecture series that brought most of the Republican presidential candidates to voters across the state and a forum in which the candidates talked about family values in front of an audience of 2,500.
Vander Plaats says the pillars of his organization’s pro-family views are the sanctity of human life, God’s design for one-man/one-woman marriage, preservation of the Constitution, and economic freedom.
Vander Plaats has his share of detractors, both from the left and from his own party. He’s been called a bully and a bigot—even a “poodle trainer”—and he’s received death threats. Some prominent Iowa Republicans claim his focus is on building his own brand.
Shortly after he endorsed Santorum, allegations surfaced that he had asked Michelle Bachmann to drop out of the race and that he sought money in exchange for his endorsement—both of which he denied.
Like a star three-point shooter who’s constantly double-teamed, Vander Plaats understands that verbal barrages and accusations are part of the game for those willing to take controversial stands in the public square. He responds by taking comfort in Scripture, counseling his family not to read the blogs, and recalling a phrase he’s often repeated: “You’ll never be wrong when you do what’s right.”
And he enjoys remembering a speaking engagement he had on a college campus. A lesbian student spoke up at an open mic time, disagreeing with his viewpoint on same-sex marriage. Vander Plaats says he walked her through why everyone needs to be concerned about the dangers of judicial activism. “I talked about the process the judges used to reach their decision—that they would eventually reach conclusions through that process that she couldn’t agree with. By the end of our time together, she told a reporter, ‘He’s way different than I thought. I could vote for him.’”