Iowa’s leading social conservative activist is moving toward a Senate run, creating another headache for the GOP establishment.
Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the powerful social conservative group The Family Leader and a former gubernatorial candidate, told The Hill on Wednesday morning he’s leaning toward a bid for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) seat and plans on deciding in the next few weeks.
Vander Plaats said he hoped to make a final decision by Feb. 15, ahead of the March 17 filing deadline, and said the odds that he’ll run now have increased.
“A year ago when we talked, and six months ago, and three months ago, I would have said I’m 20-80 or 30-70 on a run. Today I’d say that’s more like 50-50 or 60-40,” he said. “I’d been waiting for one of the candidates in the current field to break away and move out of the pack … and right now, no one has.”
As chairman of the Iowa Family Leader, Vander Plaats is an influential evangelical Christian leader in the state. He played a big role in vaulting former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) to wins in Iowa’s last two presidential caucuses. He also ran for governor in 2010, pulling 40 percent of the primary vote against well-known and well-funded Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R).
Vander Plaats has toyed with a run since Harkin announced his retirement, pushing back his original self-imposed deadline of August multiple times.
Some Republicans believe his prolonged flirtation is just a way of keeping his name in the news instead of actually pulling the trigger.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” former Iowa Republican Party Political Director Craig Robinson said. “When I talked to him last week, he said it’s 80-20 he’s running. He’s all over the map. … He likes being talked about. It’s good for him.”
If he does run, strategists say he’d be a tough candidate to beat for the GOP nomination but a weak opponent in the general election against Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa).
Vander Plaats has a passionate following of social conservatives in the state and high name identification after his successful push to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled to legalize gay marriage. Even with a late entrance into the race, that allegiance from the conservative base he’s cultivated would be hard to overcome.
But the national party is worried his strident social conservatism would make him unelectable statewide with a well-financed Braley waiting in the wings.
“If he gets in the race, he’d be incredibly difficult to beat in the primary but incredibly easy for Democrats to defeat him in the general,” one national Republican strategist said. “He’d take the state off the map.”
Vander Plaats scoffed at suggestions he was too conservative to win in Iowa.
“We should ask Presidents McCain and Romney — that’s the same message why Huckabee or Santorum weren’t good fits,” he said.
“I don’t think I’m an extreme in America in regards to valuing human life, the foundation of family with one-man, one-woman marriage, and religious liberty.”
Vander Plaats would draw a sizable chunk of votes in the crowded June primary, making it harder for any candidate to reach the 35 percent threshold needed to win the nomination outright. That scenario would throw the race to a party convention that would pick the eventual candidate, which national Republicans fear could inflame party divisions and nominate the most conservative and hard-line candidate.
Other candidates in the Republican primary race include energy executive Mark Jacobs and Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst, two more establishment conservatives, as well as conservative talk-show host Sam Clovis and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker.
National Republicans have been hopeful that Jacobs or Ernst can win the primary and give Braley a tough foe in the swing state, where President Obama’s numbers are far underwater. If they can win in Iowa, that would go a long way to expanding the electoral map and giving them a much better shot at winning Senate control.
Polls have shown Braley is vulnerable in the state. A December Quinnipiac poll found him with only single-digit leads against most of the Republicans in the race, while his own support hovered around 45 percent.
“A convention is problematic for the Senate race,” Robinson said. “If we went into one with the Senate race, it’d be messy, and it’d pick so many scabs, I don’t know if that healing process will be long enough. It’s just too much, and it’d bring all the factions alive against each other.”