Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, our guest is Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The FAMiLY LEADER. He discusses politics, policy and next week's 2021 Family Leadership Summit. Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

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Iowa has long been known as a political force in the world of Christian conservatism. We sit down with the President and CEO of The Family Leader, Bob Vander Plaats, on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, July 9 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: Western Iowa's Bob Vander Plaats was once a high school teacher and principal before diving into the world of politics. After unsuccessful bids for Iowa's republican nomination for Governor in 2002, 2006 and 2010, Vander Plaats launched The Family Leader. His activism led to the removal of three Iowa Supreme Court Justices in 2010 and lobbying for socially conservative legislation during recent legislative session. He has also been heavily involved in presidential caucus politics here in Iowa. Mr. Vander Plaats, welcome back to the show. It's good to see you again.

Vander Plaats: It feels good to be back. And it's good to see you in that chair versus over here.

Yepsen: It's great to be here. Joining the conversation across the table, Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Let's start with a conversation about presidential politics. David mentioned it. Do you think Donald Trump will run in 2024?

Vander Plaats: I don't think anybody can predict what Donald Trump is going to do. I do think he's going to keep that possibility open. One, it gives him more influence in regards to 2022 and potentially 2024. But I think a lot of it is going to depend on the rest of the field. Does somebody step up to say, that is the one that people want to be the standard bearer? And right now you see a guy like Governor Ron DeSantis out of Florida, a lot of people are looking at him a lot right now, But what Trump is going to do, I don't think anybody can predict. He's going to do what he wants to do.

Henderson: There is a section of your fellow republicans who think Donald Trump will be reinstated as President in August. Do you believe that?

Vander Plaats: I don't believe that. I think what we have regardless of what people's belief is on the election, that Joe Biden is President, Kamala Harris is Vice President and we need to keep our focus on 2022 as well as 2024. All that being said though, election integrity is a bipartisan issue. If you don't have election integrity our republic is lost. And that is why I credit Iowa a lot for upping its game with the election integrity and when you have a congressional race that comes down to 6 votes and heck isn't breaking loose, people still trust the election. Every state needs to be like that.

Murphy: How about if President Trump does run again? Does that clear the field? Does that convince all other candidates to stay away?

Vander Plaats: Yeah, I don't know. First of all, in politics, as you all well know, the spoils go to the risk taker, right? So, who would have thought Randy Feenstra would have took on Steve King? But he did take on Steve King and he unseated Steve King. Right now would Governor DeSantis stand down if Trump said I'm going to run again? I don't know. I think DeSantis knows this is probably his most opportune time to launch a bid for President. But that being said, Erin, I think what does change is the dynamics of the race. So maybe your front runners are DeSantis and Cruz and Pompeo and Pence and people like that. If Trump were to get in and say he were to secure the nomination, because he has a very vibrant base, all of a sudden it becomes who is going to be the VP? Now you could see a Kristi Noem get raised, a Tim Scott get raised and even people who aren't running for President like Governor Kim Reynolds. She could get raised.

Murphy: I was going to ask you that. How about Governor Kim Reynolds? Would she make an attractive running mate for someone out there?

Vander Plaats: Without question. As a matter of fact, I think she would be a great presidential candidate right now. She has a lot of stock across the country of how she has led during COVID, how she has led through the racial unrest and a lot of other things. Iowa in many ways has been a model. I watched her on Laura Ingraham's show with five different governors and she just stood out. So I think Governor Reynolds, obviously it's up to her, she's not going to run for President, but she would make a very compelling VP choice.

Yepsen: One of the things that I recall was in 2016, the race for President, Donald Trump got 24% of the caucus vote. Secondly, you also hear republicans now saying, including people up in your home area in northwest Iowa, time for somebody else, he should move on. They're not happy with his persona life, never have been. Is there an opening for an anti-Trump candidate in the Iowa Republican Party today? Or has all that changed?

Vander Plaats: Well, I don't know about anti-Trump. There's two things, because even up in my neck of the woods, which you just referenced, because I read a lot of that same article, I think I was even quoted in it, they are very happy with Donald Trump with what he did, moving the Embassy to Jerusalem, the Supreme Court picks that he had, ISIS on the run, a thriving economy. A lot of things he did they appreciated. They really believe that it might be more his persona that would make it very difficult for him to win again and that is where they have the problem. So it's not anti-Trump. Is there a place for say a Ron DeSantis to make his case to the people of Iowa? Yes, I believe very much so. And I think President Trump knows that as well. I think that goes into his calculation of should he run again or not.

Henderson: When we read a lot of other articles they mention this phrase evangelical Christian in the context of voting. What does that mean?

Vander Plaats: I think it means different things to different people because I think evangelical in Iowa means one thing, I think in South Carolina it may mean a different thing. Evangelical in South Caroline might mean I was raised in the Christian church and I attended Third Baptist all my life. Evangelical Christian I believe in the state of Iowa means they believe God's word to be true, that it is an inherency in scripture as well as that Jesus is the way and not a way to salvation. And I believe they believe that the scripture speaks to everything into our culture, that it deals with all parts of the culture. So the term evangelical gets used a lot, especially in polls and political circles, and often times I wonder do they really know what they're referencing or is it just a category?

Henderson: Well, explain what The Family Leader is.

Vander Plaats: The Family Leader is we want to strengthen families by inspiring Christ-like leadership in the home, in the church and in government. So Kay, if you think about where the three institutions instituted by God, church, home and government, where those three intersect, that is where we play. And we have been very effective by inspiring the church to engage the arena of government, both policy and politics as well, but for the advancement of God's kingdom so the gospel can go forth. It's not to say raise a candidate or raise a party's flag, it's really about blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord and I think John Adams was right, the republic that we have was made for a religious and a moral people.

Murphy: So, focusing on the political aspect of that, you have a big event coming up very soon here.

Vander Plaats: Thanks for mentioning that.

Murphy: Absolutely. Former Vice President Mike Pence and Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are scheduled to appear at that. They are both mentioned as possible candidates depending on how this field shakes out. There's a lot of other names on that list. Did any others reach out to you and ask for a turn at the microphone at this event?

Vander Plaats: Well, what we did, so the Family Leadership Summit, this is our 10th annual Family Leadership Summit, our first one was 2012. So after 10 years we're an overnight success, right? But, we do have Mike Pompeo coming, we do have Mike Pence coming, we do have Kristi Noem coming. And what we did is we limited our invitation this year to three potential 2024 candidates and all three said yes. And the reason we asked Governor Noem, Former Vice President Pence and Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to come is our audience have not seen them in that light before, about what would they look like as a say a presidential candidate. We've had Ted Cruz, we've had Marco Rubio, we've had Tom Cotton, we've had a whole list of others. And there are still three more years that we can do this. But we always say it's principles over politics. So we bring in Del Tackett of the Engagement Project, Joe Rosenberg on allies and enemies in the Middle East, we bring in Michael Youssef of Leading the Way out of Atlanta. Obviously I'll speak on the Family Leader as well as others. But then it's about what do we do with those principles and how do we apply them on a national scale? That is where Pompeo, Pence and Noem come in. Governor Reynolds will also be speaking at the event as well.

Henderson: Mike Pence has been booed at other speeches that he has given recently. Do you expect him to be booed at your event?

Vander Plaats: Absolutely not. He will not be booed at our event. As a matter of fact, I read an article about when he spoke in Orlando I believe it was is when he got heckled. When he spoke in New Hampshire it was a sold out crowd and a reported 8 standing ovations. I think what you'll see at our event is people like Mike Pence. He has been a consistent conservative, he is a man of faith, he will deliver a message that our base will want to hear and I think he will be enthusiastically embraced at our leadership summit.

Henderson: Did he do the right thing on January 6th?

Vander Plaats: That is probably, again, above my pay grade. But the question I ask to people who push back on that is I ask them, do you want Vice President Harris in a few years to be able to do what Mike Pence was asked to do? I think common sense would say no. So I think, but I'll let him answer that because when you're running for President that is a big person's position. You're going to get asked tough questions. And everybody is going to have their own hill to climb. That may be his. But that is up to him to answer that, not up to me to answer that.

Henderson: and when you were listing people who might be Donald Trump's running mate in 2024 if he might run for another term, you never mentioned Mike Pence's name.

Vander Plaats: Well, I don't believe Mike Pence will be his Vice President again. I don't think President Trump would offer that. I'm not so sure Mike Pence would accept that. Not because there's animosity between the two, as a matter of fact I know for a fact when Mike Pence recently had his heart condition, was in the hospital for a couple of days, President Trump reached out to him several times to make sure he was okay. So they may disagree on January 6th, but Mike Pence served Donald Trump and this country exceptionally well over four years and people should not forget that.

Yepsen: What are religious conservatives looking for in a presidential candidate, especially in 2024? What is acceptable to them?

Vander Plaats: Well, I don't know if a whole lot has changed, David, in regards to when they come to our leadership summit I think the first thing our base is going to look at is are they authentic? There's politicians who come to us all the time because they want a vote, but they really don't mean what they say. They're trying to tell us what we want to hear. So authentic, do they really believe what they believe to be really real? And then do they have a consistency of character? Do they have a consistency of conviction? Do they have a vision that will unite this country and that will win for this country? That is what I think we're looking for.

Yepsen: Is there anybody that is unacceptable that you would say don't waste your time in Iowa?

Vander Plaats: Well, right now when I take a look at the field on the republican side of potential 2024 it is a deep, deep bench. We used to run into, and you guys have heard that before especially when you were covering Iowa politics, David, is you had the establishment candidate and then you had all these others. I don't know who the establishment candidate is right now. But I think what Donald Trump brought to the table, which people need to take a lesson from, agree or disagree with his tactics, he was bold and courageous about how to get things done. It was not about politics as usual. We have talked about moving that Embassy to Jerusalem forever, both sides have, he did it. And I think that is what he basically showed to 2022 candidates and 2024 candidates, you've got to have a bold and courageous spirit.

Murphy: So you mentioned the field and we want to ask you about that. There are a lot of names that are noted, the ones at your events, Pompeo, Pence, Noem, the Senators Scott, Tim from South Carolina and Rick from Florida, Tom Cotton has been here, you mentioned Governor DeSantis. Do you have any early impressions as far as candidates? You have mentioned Governor DeSantis a few times unprovoked. Is he standing out to you? Who else in this field --

Vander Plaats: I think Governor DeSantis is standing out across the country right now. I think it was at the western whatever summit they had that they did a straw poll and DeSantis beat Trump in the straw poll about who they'd like to see run in 2024. DeSantis has kind of an unfair advantage right now. He is leading Florida, he is Governor of Florida and he is doing things that conservatives want to see happen. So when you take a look at Former Vice President Pence, he's not in that position that Governor DeSantis is or Mike Pompeo, so to speak. So it's going to be a big field. Ted Cruz took second last time. That is usually a pretty enviable position to run again.

Murphy: And won Iowa.

Vander Plaats: And he won Iowa.

Henderson: And you endorsed him. Do you plan to endorse him again?

Vander Plaats: As I tell people it was like I endorsed Mike Huckabee back in 2008, I did not in 2016. I endorsed Santorum in 2012 but did not in 2016. And so when Senator Cruz and I have visited and about the potential if he were to run, he hasn't made a decision, but if he were to run, I've been very upfront. 2024 is not 2016. And so I've got to take a look at the whole field before I would make an endorsement if I choose to endorse in 2024.

Yepsen: That was my next question, are you going to endorse? That's a pretty good track record of picking winners.

Vander Plaats: Well, I think what it's a good track record of is me having a pulse on where our base is at and our base is highly influential on this process. Honestly, Dave, I would rather not endorse, but if I have to I'll step up and I will.

Yepsen: Before the race gets to Florida, the Iowa Caucuses most people think will be first, the Iowa Republican Caucuses in 2024. Is that your understanding?

Vander Plaats: What I tell people all the time, national press, is take a look at people's travel schedules. That will tell you who is going first. And right now the travel schedule they're coming here.

Yepsen: Well, one of the things is true in Iowa political history in both parties is that there is a Midwest regional advantage to presidential candidates. They know how to campaign here. You look at this lineup, Noem South Dakota, Pence of Indiana, Pompeo of Kansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri. Will we have a great Midwestern shoot out here in Iowa in 2024?

Vander Plaats: You may have and they may all divide that Midwestern support as well. But you also have Ted Cruz who won in 2016 from Texas and he's going to be probably most likely running again. And the other thing is that these guys say Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, they all have heavy, heavy name ID. If Trump decides not to run, the advantage is going to go to them because they have the heavy name ID along with say a Ron DeSantis. It's going to be tougher for a Governor Noem, for a Senator Hawley, for others to now try to get their name ID to a point. So I think a lot does depend on does Trump run again or not. The Midwestern, I don't know if that plays as big of an advantage year to year as some people may predict it does.

Henderson: There has been a debate in the Southern Baptist Convention about politics. The Catholic Bishops of the country debated whether some politicians should be given Communion. Is there a danger in this country whereby people who are in the church and your organization is lobbying for people to be more engaged citizens rather than as church members focused on citizenship in heaven?

Vander Plaats: Well, I definitely think we tell people all the time, look higher. Meaning, where does your help come from? It doesn't say Washington, D.C. Your help comes from the Lord so live with an eternal perspective. But as you live with an eternal perspective you can have earthly impact and influence. Just in the Lord's Prayer, on Earth as it is in heaven. Okay? So we believe government exists for the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of righteousness. And so what we want to do is advocate for justice and for righteousness. If it's for the family we're for it, if it's against the family we're against it. If it's according to God's heart we're for it, if it's against God's heart we're against it. And I think that is a very biblical way to apply your citizenship both in the heavenly realm as well as here on Earth.

Murphy: Recent polling has showed that 45%, and this gets back to the term that you talked about earlier and you wonder how it is defined in polling, but polling found that 45% of white evangelical protestant Americans are hesitant or are accepting of COVID vaccines, 45% are accepting, which is a low number relative to other populations. Do you feel the church, church leaders, religious leaders have a role in having that discussion with their members, with their parishioners about the COVID vaccine and the safety of our society more broadly?

Vander Plaats: You bet. And I think what's really unfortunate, Erin, as a matter of fact I just had this visit with my doctor not that long ago, he is the one who brought it up. How unfortunate is it that in this country everything is political today? Even COVID is political, vaccines are political. I think where you're seeing the resistance to the vaccine is because it is being forced upon them, mask up or get vaccinated. I'll go door to door. Where Governor Reynolds, as a matter of fact, I'd really encourage President Biden to study Governor Reynolds. She treated Iowans like adults. I'm going to give you the best information I can and you need to make wise decisions for yourself. So being in a pro-vaccinated camp or anti-vaccinated camp, I think let those individuals make their decisions, but we are not a government that is a heavy hand of force and that is what you're seeing I think is the resistance.

Yepsen: Should evangelicals get a vaccination?

Vander Plaats: I think it goes back to what I just said. I think you treat them like adults, you give them the best information that you can, you let them make the decisions. But I don't believe it should be a forced deal upon them.

Yepsen: Are you concerned at all that what we're seeing now is the development of this Delta variant that is striking those people who haven't had vaccines, who coincidentally tend to come out of some of the more conservative areas of Iowa, Missouri, for example. It may not be right, Mr. Vander Plaats, but there does seem to be a religious demarcation there that this disease could adversely affect evangelicals because they didn't get a shot.

Vander Plaats: I think what it is it's a piece of information, a piece of information that you give to this population, but it doesn't come with a force, now you have to get the vaccination. And so I don't think it's just evangelicals, I think we're using that term because you referenced it with the polling, but it's a lot of people who love their freedom deeply to say I do not want to be forced into anything. The Delta variant today, well COVID has been around for a long time, there may be another variant tomorrow. And so I think you leave that up to you and your doctors and you make your best decision.

Henderson: At the beginning you were describing your organization as a lobbying force, if you will, at the Statehouse. Why were election law changes needed? You mentioned that Iowans respected the 2020 results here.

Vander Plaats: I think what it is, I think it's up to every state. As a matter of fact, when Texas sued I believe Pennsylvania and the Supreme Court said, we're not hearing it. The reason is, which I agree with, is all elections are local elections. Pennsylvania is in charge of Pennsylvania, Arizona of Arizona, Iowa of Iowa. And so I think it behooves every state, Kay, to make sure they have the best election integrity laws to where you as a voter and me as a voter, we believe our vote was counted and it mattered versus that it didn't. And so I think in Iowa that is something to champion. I think we should be getting better and better and voter integrity all the way along.

Henderson: What is your 2022 legislative priority?

Vander Plaats: Well, I think the 2022 legislative priority will still be school choice. We'll look very much on school choice. I think we made some headway there this year. I'm a former public educator, raised in the private school system but taught in the public school system, was a high school principal in the public school system. But I think having charter schools gives some competition, I think that's good for education, true open enrollment, again, we'd like to see where the dollars actually follow the kids.

Murphy: Back in 2012 I believe it was your organization led a campaign to talk about the judicial retention process in Iowa and David mentioned at the top some Supreme Court Justices were not retained because of that. You also advocated I believe for the changes to the judicial nominating process in the state. Governors Branstad and Reynolds have now nominated most of the current Iowa Supreme Court. Are you pleased with the fruits of those labors? Do you feel the Iowa Supreme Court is operating the way you envisioned it when you undertook that lobbying? Or do you think more action needs to be taken? For example, do you think that Iowa judges should be elected?

Vander Plaats: No, I do not believe they should be elected. But I do believe that we should all be against activist judges or judges who step outside of their constitutional boundaries. I do applaud Governor Reynolds in her recent appointments. There are -- our thing is always are they adhering to the Constitution? If they're adhering to the Constitution, great. If they step outside of their bounds as they did with the Varnum decision, yeah we're going to have an issue with that. If they step outside of their bounds and say there's a Constitutional right to abortion in Iowa and the public finding thereof, no, you're making stuff up. That is where we have a problem with it. And so we've been very involved, I think there has been some tweaks to the judicial nominating process that we have supported and I believe Governor Reynolds is doing a great job in appointing justices.

Yepsen: Mr. Vander Plaats, my job is to watch the clock and we're out of time. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

Vander Plaats: Thank you. God bless you guys.

Yepsen: Appreciate it. And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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