This past Saturday, the Iowa Family Policy Center (IFPC) held a gubernatorial forum following the Iowa/Iowa State football game. The event was held at the State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. IFPC invited Governor Chet Culver, the six announced Republican gubernatorial candidates, and former Governor Terry Branstad, who is rumored to be interested in running.
The forum, which was also a barbeque, allowed each of the four candidates in attendance to address to the crowd of over 300 people about issues that they feel are important to the family. Each candidate was given fifteen minutes to speak, and at the conclusion of the speeches, those in attendance were asked to cast their vote in a candidate straw poll.
All of the four candidates who attended the event, Bob Vander Plaats, Chris Rants, Rod Roberts, and Christian Fong, did a tremendous job delivering their speeches and intermingled well with the crowd. Rep. Rod Roberts did a great job in addressing both social issues like marriage and the fiscal issues concerning Governor Culver’s budget. Christian Fong looked like a candidate who hadn’t done many forums, but he interacted with people really well and impressed a number of people with is tone and the political approach of his speech. The drama at the forum however, was provided by the two candidates who have spent the last two weeks going back and forth with each other – Bob Vander Plaats and Chris Rants.
It was obvious that Vander Plaats was in his comfort zone at the event, and the forum was being held on his home turf. Vander Plaats was the second candidate to speak, and he provided plenty of red meat in his remarks. He talked about life, marriage, immigration, gambling, the 2nd amendment, I-Jobs, education and just about any other issue you could imagine.
The loudest applause line of the night came when Vander Plaats pledged to sign an executive order on his first day in office if elected Governor. His executive order would place a stay on gay marriages until the people of Iowa have an opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment. Vander Plaats then asked if a candidate is not willing to die on the hill to defend marriage, what hill will they die on?
Vander Plaats also took a shot at Chris Rants, who has been critical of his financial stewardship of Opportunities Unlimited. Vander Plaats served as CEO and Chairman of the Board of Opportunities Unlimited from 1996 to 2003. Vander Plaats said that there are some candidates who have to tear someone down in order to build themselves up. He then stated that he isn’t running against the other candidates vying for the Republican nomination, but is running for Iowa.
While Vander Plaats speech was smooth, polished, and full of applause lines, Rants’ speech was incredibly personal, painfully honest, humble, and without any indication that he would back off his questioning of Vander Plaats record or that of any other candidate.
Rants responded to Vander Plaats’ criticism of his attacks by saying that the hill he is willing to die on is truth and honesty. Rants admitted that some of his opponents and their supporters are uncomfortable with his critique of their record, but he believes it’s important for the voters to know as much as possible about the candidates.
Rants used the majority of his speaking allotment to let people know about who he is as a person. Rants admitted that he has struggled in opening up to people in the past and admitted that his niche as a candidate is talking about specific policy proposals. On Saturday night, Rants opted to push those issues aside so that people get an opportunity to know him on a more personal level.
He told the story of when his wife was pregnant with his oldest daughter, Grace. Rants was a newly elected legislator and rushed home because his wife was having difficulties with the pregnancy. Rants admitted that, at the time, the reason he was pro-life as a candidate was because he ran as a Republican, and it was just what you did when you ran as a Republican. Rants then said that he didn’t become a pro-life candidate until he found himself on his knees in the chapel of St. Luke’s Hospital in Sioux City, praying not for the bundle of fetal tissue his wife was carrying, but his baby girl. It is because of that experience he has a pro-life voting record.
Rants also took issue with Vander Plaats’ executive order proposal. Rants was the last speaker of the night, and prior to him taking the stage, the loudest applause of the night came when Vander Plaats spoke about this proposal. Undaunted, Rants warned the crowd that gay marriage wasn’t brought to Iowa overnight, and we are not going to be able to overturn it in one day either.
Rants recalled how his collugues in the Iowa House asked him to help them force a vote on marriage in that chamber following the Supreme Court’s decision last April. He also explained to people how the Varnum decision was made possible because the left incrementally passed legislation that allowed homosexual couples to adopt children, be foster parents, and granted them special protection in the civil rights bill. Rants asked everyone in attendance to look across the table and ask each other where their outrage was when all of those things were happening.
Rants’ speech might not have been the most popular on Saturday night, but it was by far the most interesting, and the room was absolutely silent while he spoke. If any of the candidates were going to struggle to find support in the room that night, it was going to be Chris Rants. This wasn’t his type of crowd, and yet he might have gained the most of any candidate who attended the event.
Vander Plaats won the straw poll vote with 63% of the vote, followed by Christian Fong with 14%, Chris Rants with 13%, and Rod Roberts with 9%. The only other candidates receiving votes were former Governor Branstad with 3 votes, and Governor Culver with 1 vote. In talking with a number of people following the event, they all thought Rants did himself the most good with his speech. Many people were stunned by his honestly and tone.
One person I talked with said that he thought Rants would have been lucky to get ten votes before he gave his speech. Obviously Rants was able to win over a few people, as did Christian Fong. Everybody expected Vander Plaats to be the clear winner at the end of the night, but when all the votes were counted, a significant portion of those in attendance voted for someone other than Bob Vander Plaats. That means Vander Plaats may not have sole possession of value voters as many people have suggested.
All the candidates who attended the forum can rightfully look at the results of the night and feel that they were able to come away as a winner. If anyone is going to be deemed a loser, it would have be the two declared Republican gubernatorial candidates who didn’t attend. Both Sen. Jerry Behn and Sen. Paul McKinley were foolish not to attend the event.
The event was about as simple as it can get. No candidate was asked any questions by IFPC or the audience. It was a barbeque where candidates were allowed to work the tables, and then each candidate was given 15 minutes to speak. There just are not many times when primary candidates can speak to a group of 300 activists in the same room.
The folks at the Iowa Family Policy Center should be commended for putting together Saturday’s forum. Having more than 300 people attend such an event on the Saturday following the Iowa/Iowa State game is no small feat.
Photos by Dave Davidson
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