The Iowa Caucus Kingmaker

Bob Vander Plaats offers GOP candidates a choice: join his crusade against gay marriage or lose the primary.

On its face, courting someone like Bob Vander Plaats—a man who has lost every campaign he’s ever run in—would seem an odd strategy for Republican presidential hopefuls. But here they come, to Iowa, one after the other: Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Michelle Bachmann, and more. On an overcast Monday in March, Ron Paul is the latest to barnstorm the state, squired by Vander Plaats in a convoy of pickup trucks from the tiny Pella airport to a nearby Christian high school, where they encounter a classic Iowa political tableau: a crush of local news trucks, frenetic cameramen, and a crowd of hundreds eager to size up the field. “Today we’re living in an age where the family has been greatly diminished,” Paul tells the crowd. “There’s a failure to recognize that our rights and our lives come from our Creator.” He knows that his audience today is made up of the state’s most ardent social conservatives—the sort of people who regard it as their churchly duty to participate in Iowa’s Republican presidential caucus, and thus the sort of people who have great influence on the outcome. Paul’s very presence—he’s a staunch libertarian—marks the growing stature of Vander Plaats and his followers. Vander Plaats claims he can deliver them. For a price.

A lanky former high-school principal, Vander Plaats has run for governor three times, including last year, when he performed best. After roaming the state inveighing against the country’s parlous moral condition, he narrowly lost the Republican primary, refused to endorse the victor, Terry Branstad (now governor), and instead returned to the passion that animated his campaign: outrage over the Iowa Supreme Court’s landmark 2009 ruling that legalized gay marriage.

Overriding the court decision presented difficulties. A national network of gay activists, anticipating a favorable ruling one day, had worked for years to elect friendly legislators and give Democrats control of the statehouse. At least for now, they have blocked legislation that would outlaw gay marriage. So after his defeat last June, Vander Plaats went after the court itself. In Iowa, the governor appoints justices to eight-year terms, after which they are subject to a retention vote—previously, a formality. But Vander Plaats and his followers channeled anger over the decision into a statewide campaign against the three justices on the ballot last November. “The ruling came as a complete shock to most Iowans,” he told me. “They didn’t know how it had happened. The retention vote was the first time they could make their voices heard.” All three justices lost soundly. And Vander Plaats emerged a power broker.

Still, the law stands. And while the marriage decision influenced Iowa’s elections, nationally the GOP has all but abandoned the fight against gay rights: last December, eight Senate Republicans joined Democrats in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The combination of a recession and shifting societal norms is a big reason: polls show that voters are preoccupied with the economy and steadily more accepting of gay marriage. Even Iowans are roughly split over the court’s decision—and the most telling number in a recent Des Moines Register poll was the 30 percent of respondents who said they didn’t care about it one way or the other.

Such attitudes alarm people like Vander Plaats. But he has a plan to fight back. Because of his standing in Iowa—and because Iowa will be crucial in determining who challenges President Obama—he has seized the opportunity that the presidential nominating process presents to open another front in his crusade against gay marriage, and a potentially transformative one. Having established a position of leverage, he hopes to use the prospective Republican candidates, and the national media that cover them, to amplify his message and ultimately swing momentum in the culture wars back in his favor.

To prime the electorate, he is touring Iowa’s 99 counties under the auspices of the new organization he heads, the Family Leader. He has also invited the presidential hopefuls to travel with him for a lecture series, which will culminate in a candidates’ debate in November. It is expected that anyone who accompanies him will address such issues as abortion and homosexuality—and with a certain zeal, if they’re wise. So far, most candidates seem willing. “Vander Plaats is a poodle trainer,” says Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. “He makes them jump through hoops, threatens them, and makes them come to him if they want support. And he’s been remarkably and frighteningly successful.”

Indeed, just before a sweep through Iowa with Vander Plaats, Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor once considered a moderate, made national news by declaring his intention, if elected president, to reinstate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” “We thought what Governor Pawlenty did was exactly what we’d like to see a lot of the other candidates do,” Vander Plaats told me.

That’s not impossible to imagine. Social conservatives traditionally dominate Iowa’s Republican caucus. Last time, 60 percent of participants identified themselves as evangelical Christians, and helped deliver a victory to a former pastor, Mike Huckabee. Vander Plaats was his Iowa campaign chair.

The weak economy ensures that jobs, debt, and the role of government will still be important issues in Iowa, as they are everywhere. And other prominent social conservatives, some of whom regard Vander Plaats as a grandstanding interloper, also expect to be wooed.

Nevertheless, the caucus will be decided by a small and committed group of conservative activists. The winner will be in a commanding position. In the end, Vander Plaats’s offer to the national candidates—with all that it implies—may be one they dare not refuse.