Written by Jennifer Jacobs, Des Moines Register
After weeks of buzz that he’d be the firecracker to reconfigure the U.S. Senate race in Iowa, religious conservative Bob Vander Plaats has decided not to run, citing a focus on his message of national spiritual revival.
“That’s my sweet spot right now,” Vander Plaats, the author of a new book that calls for people to pray and repent for the sins in their own lives, told The Des Moines Register in an interview Friday.
His decision — sure to disappoint both the far right and far left — has been awaited for months as Republicans try mightily to find a candidate with the best chances of taking away a powerful seat that has been in Democratic hands for nearly 30 years.
“I’m really shocked,” said David Bossie, president of Citizens United, a conservative advocacy organization that’s a force in national politics. “There seemed to be an opportunity for him to make the case to Iowans for this nomination. And he would’ve been an exceptional candidate.”
Winning the open Iowa seat is viewed as critical for Republicans to reclaim control in the U.S. Senate, where they need to pick up a net gain of six seats. It’s been seven years since the GOP last held the majority.
Vander Plaats, a cheerful Christian who talks frequently about God’s abundance, is much respected by Iowa evangelical conservatives, who tend to be reliable voters, as well as by national social conservatives, who had promised to help bankroll his campaign.
But he sends shudders down the spines of liberals, who opposed his 2010 take-down of three state Supreme Court justices who took part in the ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. Liberals routinely send out right-wing alerts if he makes a comment they consider controversial.
Even Vander Plaats seemed a bit surprised by his decision, noting he “came very, very close” to going for his fourth attempt at elected office.
A clear-eyed examination of the race, he said, showed he likely would’ve been victorious in replacing his polar opposite, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat who retires in less than a year.
“Polling shows I’m ahead three to one in the current (GOP) field,” said Vander Plaats, who added that he had “a great campaign team in the wings.”
BVP — his initials are his shorthand name in political circles — was the last looming shadow over a big lineup of Republicans battling to take on Democrat Bruce Braley, a Waterloo congressman also seeking the seat.
A set of second-string Republicans stepped forward when all of Iowa’s top-tier GOP leaders declined to run, and all are still struggling to boost their name recognition, including state Sen. Joni Ernst, retired utilities company CEO Mark Jacobs, conservative radio talk show host Sam Clovis and former U.S. attorney Matt Whitaker. Two others, former car salesman Scott Schaben and conservative book author Paul Lunde, are extreme underdogs four months out from the June 3 primary.
“No one has broken out of the pack yet,” Vander Plaats said. “I will encourage all God-honoring candidates in this race … but I’m not feeling a strong urging to do an endorsement.”
Democrats were pushing just as hard for Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, an organization that promotes religious conservative principles in government. Liberal strategists thought he’d win the GOP primary, but predicted he’d become Iowa’s Todd Akin in the general election. Akin was the unsuccessful GOP U.S. Senate candidate from Missouri in 2012 who created a firestorm with his comment about “legitimate rape.”
Vander Plaats laughed at that thought, but agreed that he would have energized the Democratic base more than anyone.
Instead, his priority is his new book, “If 7:14.” It’s based on a Bible passage that says if people pray and turn from their wicked ways, God will hear and heal their land. (www.if714.com)
Vander Plaats said he has been booked for speaking engagements across the country, including at the Billy Graham Evangelical Association in North Carolina a few weeks ago, the New Canaan Society in Florida, a conference in Texas next week with pastors from large churches, and the National Council of Religious Broadcasters the following week.
“When God seems to be blessing an initiative, and there’s a lot of opportunity with that initiative, it’s hard to walk away,” he said.
“The Dutch guy in me says elections are important, but I view any race like the Dutchboy putting the finger in the dike — it’s a stopgap message,” he said. “We’re in a situation today where the dike needs to be rebuilt.”
Vander Plaats was pretty sure his mind was made up Thursday, but he went to another candidate’s campaign event that night just to see if he felt an overwhelming tug. He and his wife, Darla, stood at the back and watched GOP congressional candidate Robert Cramer speak at a house party in Polk City.
“When we left, we both went, ‘I’m not sure I want to go back to that rodeo right now. That’s not our calling,’ ” he said.
National strategists are closely watching what happens next in the race. Bossie, the Citizens United president, said Iowa “could be the 51st seat for the Republican Party in taking back the majority.”
“Conservatives across the country as well as the establishment were watching Bob over the last month or more and now will be looking deeply into the current bench of candidates to find which one will be the standard-bearer,” Bossie said. “Iowa is not without other outstanding candidates — like Sam Clovis and Joni Ernst.”