US Senate

January 28th, 2014

Will Vander Plaats Run for U.S. Senate?

Bob Vander Plaats has flirted with the idea of running for Iowa’s soon to be vacant U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Tom Harkin for a year now.  I first talked to Vander Plaats about the race over coffee while attending CPAC last March.  As has been the case in all of my discussions with him over the past year, Vander Plaats sees an opportunity, but he also really likes his day job.

Last spring Vander Plaats said that he would make his decision about getting into the race after the FAMiLY Leader’s Leadership Conference, which was held in August.  When a poll came out in November showing Vander Plaats leading the Republican U.S. Senate field, a spokesperson with the FAMiLY Leader said, “He [Vander Plaats] is completely focused on The FAMiLY Leader and will not entertain discussion of a U.S. Senate run until after the first of the year.”

Now it’s late January, and Vander Plaats is talking to various media outlets, this time saying that he will make a decision on the U.S. Senate race by February 15th.  Apparently he wants to get Valentines Day out of the way before announcing his plans.  For someone who has constantly shown interest in running for the U.S. Senate, Vander Plaats’ inaction speaks as loudly as his words.  While it is still a toss up on whether he runs or not, the clock is ticking.  The real drop-dead deadline for Vander Plaats comes on March 17th, the last day for candidates to file the necessary papers to be on the ballot.

As Vander Plaats continues to kick the tires on a U.S. Senate run, I thought it would be useful to assess the Republican U.S. Senate primary and see what strengths and weaknesses he would bring to the race should he decide to run.

Is there a drumbeat for Vander Plaats?

There are plenty of Republicans who have either supported Vander Plaats in one of his previous three campaigns for governor or have supported the socially conservative organization he now runs, The FAMiLY Leader.  Social issues have not played a prominent role in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, and that would likely change should Vander Plaats enter the race.  Perhaps there are a number of social conservatives that are not satisfied with the current crop of candidates, but in covering the race, discontent with the field of candidates is not something that is being discussed.

Vander Plaats will have support if he runs, but there doesn’t seem to be a large untapped group of voters who are clamoring for him to run for the U.S. Senate.  When you look back over the year, it’s Vander Plaats himself who is often at the core of the articles written about him possibly running for the U.S. Senate.

Is there an opening for Vander Plaats?

Vander Plaats is reading the Republican U.S. Senate race like everyone else is.  On one hand, you have an authentic and well-versed social conservative in Sam Clovis.  While the Clovis campaign has done more with less, Clovis’ inability to raise a significant amount of money opens the window for a better-known and likely better-financed social conservative, such as Vander Plaats, to enter the race.  On the other end of the spectrum is Mark Jacobs.

Jacobs’ strength is found in his fundraising prowess and ability to partially fund his campaign’s operations.  Jacobs is running radio and TV ads but has done little to excite the Republican base, which may create an opportunity for another candidate.  Joni Enrst and Matt Whitaker are solid candidates, but neither of them have the financial backing to compete with Jacobs, and they have shown little interest in competing with Clovis for the support of the state’s most ardent conservatives.

It is easy to see why Vander Plaats believes there is an opening for him in the race, but seizing that opportunity could prove to be difficult.  For Vander Plaats to consolidate conservative Republicans behind his candidacy, he will have to deal with Clovis.  While Vander Plaats would make the case that he’s the conservative that has what it takes to win, convincing die-hard Clovis supporters is going to be difficult.

First, electability arguments never play well with movement conservatives.  Secondly, while name ID alone backs up the notion that Vander Plaats is more electable than Clovis, it’s a difficult sale coming from a candidate who has lost three high-profile Republican primaries.  It’s probably more likely that a Vander Plaats candidacy does more to split the conservative vote in Iowa than unite it.

Vander Plaats would have an easy time campaigning against Jacobs.  Vander Plaats has run against the likes of Doug Gross, Jim Nussle, and Terry Branstad.  While he’s never been successful, he does know what buttons to push with the base.  The main reason why Vader Plaats has struggled in his three attempts for governor is money.  In each instance, Vander Plaats was running against a well-financed mainstream Republican candidate, which would be the case again in 2014.

For Vander Plaats to be successful, he must be able to go toe-to-toe with Jacobs on statewide TV and radio.  In his 2010 bid for governor, Vander Plaats didn’t run TV ads until the final weeks of the campaign.  With Jacobs already on the air, Vander Plaats would have to raise money quickly if he ever hopes to be able to define his opponent.

An old poll says go!

Vander Plaats and his supporters were obviously encouraged last November when Citizens United published the results of an Iowa U.S. Senate poll that showed him easily winning the Republican primary.  The poll showed that 28 percent of Republicans picked Vander Plaats, while the rest of the field was mired in single digits.

It’s no surprise that Vander Plaats, with his high statewide name ID, dominated the poll.  All of the Republican U.S. Senate candidates are still relatively unknown, and while Vander Plaats has an advantage there, he also has high negatives with some Republican voters.   And just because the current field was unknown back in November doesn’t mean they are unknown today.  For instance, Jacobs has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising to help get himself more well known.

While it’s clear that the Vander Plaats people were thrilled to see him dominate in a poll, the number that should scare him was the 39 percent of voters that were undecided.  Those people likely know who Vander Plaats is, and they are not interested in him.  That’s problematic for Vander Plaats because it suggests that his number doesn’t really have much room to grow.

How will Vander Plaats do raising money with federal limits?

Vander Plaats has run for state office three separate times.  In each instance, he has raised an adequate amount of money.  In his 2006 bid for governor, Vander Plaats raised over $1 million.  In his 2010 campaign for governor Vander Plaats raised just shy of a $1 million.  When compared to the money that Clovis, Ernst, and Whitaker have raised for their U.S. Senate campaign, Vader Plaats looks like an impressive fundraiser.

The only problem for Vander Plaats is that donors who gave large contributions of $25,000 to $50,000 to his gubernatorial campaigns will only be able to donate $10,400, and he would only be able to use half of that for the primary campaign.  Raising a million dollars for a congressional campaign is much more difficult that it is to raise a million dollars for a gubernatorial campaign.  As is the case with a lot of statewide campaigns, the bulk of the money raised comes from a handful of people. That means that while it took just 17 donors to get you to a million for a gubernatorial campaign, it would would take you 192 maxed out donors to raise $1 million for the primary.

Making things even more difficult for Vander Plaats is that he only has four and a half months to raise they money he needs for the primary.  While I have little doubt that Vander Plaats would be able to raise a considerable amount of money for his campaign, if he’s serious about winning the primary, he’s going to have to outraise every other candidate in their first quarter as a candidate.  That includes the $400,000 that Jacobs raised.  It seems unlikely that Vander Plaats could raise $400,000 in three months in $5,200 maximum increments.

Vander Plaats does have one advantage that he never had in his previous campaigns. His work with the FAMiLY Leader has allowed Vander Plaats to build relationships with groups like Citizens United, National Organization for Marriage, and the Heritage Foundation.  Those groups may help Vander Plaats raise money for a U.S. Senate bid, or they may be inclined to run ads on his behalf.  Still, any campaign that is heavily reliant on outside groups to host fundraisers or spend on their behalf is rather weak and not really in a position to win.

What will Vander Plaats do?

It’s anybody’s guess what Vander Plaats will do.  Running for the U.S. Senate does have some risks he will have to consider.  While it’s way too early to begin to speculate about the 2018 elections, Vander Plaats has to be thinking about running for governor once Branstad retires.  If Vander Plaats runs for the U.S. Senate and fails, it would seem unlikely that he would be taken seriously for a fifth try at statewide elected office.

As for the U.S. Senate race, I don’t know if Vander Plaats is just trying to keep his name out there because it’s good for his brand or if he is really serious about running.  While Vander Plaats says he will make a decision by February 15th, we may have to wait until the candidate-filing deadline to know for sure what he decides.


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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