US Senate

February 13th, 2014

Bob Vander Plaats is not the 800 Pound Gorilla He Thinks He Is

There is no disputing it.  Bob Vander Plaats is the best-known social conservative in the state of Iowa.  Congressman Steve King is perhaps the only other social conservative in the state with similar name recognition, but King’s never been a statewide candidate, and everything Vander Plaats has ever involved himself in has been a statewide effort.

As Vander Plaats’ new self-imposed February 15th deadline looms, chatter about Vander Plaats, whether it be about where he’s at, what he’s doing, who he’s meeting with, and when he plans to formally announce his candidacy, are running rampant.  It’s difficult to have a political conversation in Iowa without the Vander Plaats topic coming up.

It seems likely that Vander Plaats is about to jump into the Republican U.S. Senate primary.  Starting in 2002, Vander Plaats name has been on a statewide primary ballot every other election cycle.  He ran for Governor in 2002, 2006, and 2010.   Having run for office every four years, it seems only natural that Vander Plaats be on the ballot in 2014.  The only difference this time is that he would be running for the U.S. Senate, and not for governor.

Vander Plaats’ name recognition across the state alone makes him a formidable candidate in the U.S. Senate primary.  Since his last primary defeat, Vander Plaats has also built up strong relationships with key-social conservative organizations like the National Organization for Marriage, the Heritage Foundation, and Citizens United.  Vander Plaats is going to need some outside assistance should he choose to run for the U.S. Senate since primary day is less than four months away.

Vander Plaats has been contemplating running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate because he feels the current field of Republican candidates is weak.  Sam Clovis, a grassroots candidate with social conservative credibility, has been running for the U.S. Senate since late May.  The knock on Clovis since day one has been his lackluster fundraising, and the $161,000 he raised in all of 2013, has done nothing to quiet his critics.

Vander Plaats also perceives weakness in the other three candidates, State Senator Joni Ernst, Mark Jacobs, and Matt Whitaker.  Like Clovis, Ernst and Whitaker have struggled to raise significant funds that would enable them to make the case to voters that either of them is the candidate most capable of beating Congressman Bruce Braley.  Money isn’t an issue with Jacobs, but he’s done little to impress the state’s grassroots activists.

When Vander Plaats peers in to his mirror, he believes that what is staring back at him is the 800 pound gorilla who could wreak havoc in the Republican U.S. Senate primary.  In regards to name I.D., he’s right, but should Vander Plaats actually run, his other inadequacies will once again become apparent.

As far as campaign staff goes, Vander Plaats has never shown the ability to attract a top-notch staff to run a statewide campaign.  Vander Plaats struggled to raise money for his three gubernatorial campaigns when there was no contribution limits.  Raising money for federal office is far more difficult, and he’s never done it.  In his 2006 and 2010 campaigns, Vander Plaats enjoyed the free publicity from his personal friend and advisor, Steve Deace.  Deace is no-longer the drive-time host on WHO Radio, thus his free daily public relations agent and chief attack dog doesn’t have as much bite as he did in Vander Plaats’ last campaigns.

Vander Plaats’ biggest weakness is message discipline.  There is little doubt that, once Vander Plaats enters the race, he will attempt to make social issues the front and center topics of debate.  This is how Vander Plaats will get his supporters to engage in the race, but the current race for the U.S. Senate is a lot different than the last two gubernatorial campaigns.  First and foremost, he’s not running against a former governor or congressman with lengthy record to pick at.  Second, only one of the candidates in the race has a voting record, and she’s only served in the state senate for three years.

With virtually no voting records to pick apart, it’s going to be difficult for Vander Plaats to distinguish himself from his Republican opponents.  All of them are pro-life and favor traditional marriage, which means Vander Plaats will have to stake out some extreme positions if he hopes to use those issues to separate himself from his Republican counterparts.

Primary voters who believe social issues are the most important issues in the race are likely to support Vander Plaats because he’s championed those issues for the past decade.  Yet, while Vander Plaats is the best-known social conservative in the state, one shouldn’t over look the fact that his track-record in advancing pro-family issues in the state is miserable.

Vander Plaats has never stood behind a governor as an important piece of legislation was signed that Vander Plaats and his organization fought for.  He’s never stood outside of the Iowa Supreme Court building after a court ruling to say that his organization played a key role in preserving traditional marriage.  No, all of Vander Plaats’ accomplishments are political accomplishments.  He’s credited with helping two social conservatives win the Iowa Caucuses in 2008 and 2012, and he led the campaign that ousted three Iowa Supreme Court Justices.

The defeat of the three justices in 2010 is Vander Plaats’ biggest accomplishment, yet he was unsuccessful in a similar effort in 2012.  The different outcome is due in large part to the fact that Iowa voters were frustrated 2010 because they wanted the ability to vote on whether or not gay marriage should be allowed in the state.   All of that frustration had to go somewhere, and Vander Plaats was wise to direct it towards the justices who were up for retention that year.

Even though talk of Vander Plaats has dominated political conversations around Iowa in the last week, it’s doubtful that he will dominate in the U.S. Senate primary.  Vander Plaats may view Sam Clovis as an inferior U.S. Senate candidate, but a guy like Clovis isn’t about to cede the grassroots network he’s built over the past 8 months to Vander Plaats.

What Vander Plaats sees as a clear opening may end up being a big muddy mess as far as social conservatives go.  Vander Plaats has complained to everyone who will listen about how Rod Roberts staying in the 2010 gubernatorial race cost him the nomination.  If Vander Plaats can’t win over or get Clovis to bow out, he’s not going to be able to consolidate the social conservative vote behind his candidacy either.

Many think that Vander Plaats entering the U.S. Senate race late means that it is more likely that the winner will be decided at the state convention.  While it’s too early to know if that will indeed be the case, if Vander Plaats can’t surpass the 35 percent in the primary necessary to be the Republican nominee, he’s not going to be the odds on favorite in the convention.

Clovis has worked the convention angle the most out of all the U.S. Senate candidates, and it doesn’t help Vander Plaats that the Branstad campaign has been encouraging its supporters to participate in the caucus-to-convention process in 2014 in hopes of electing new leadership for the Republican Party of Iowa.

Vander Plaats has likely enjoyed all the attention he’s been receiving lately, but all that attention turns in to expectations once he officially enters the race.  Like every other candidate who has jumped into this race has realized, it’s one thing to talk about running for statewide office, but it’s another things to actually do it and do it well.

If Vander Plaats runs for the U.S. Senate, he will change the current dynamics of the race, but he will also have a lot to prove on a number of different fronts to become the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.


Photo by Dave Davidson,


About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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