Bob Vander Platts

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 30, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Bob Vander Platts, president and CEO of The FAMiLY Leader, discusses Republican presidential candidates and campaigns, as well as the Iowa Supreme Court's recent abortion ruling.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for The Des Moines Register and Clay Masters, lead political reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



Bob Vander Plaats and his Family Leader organization still wield power and influence among conservative Christians in Iowa. We'll sit down and talk politics with him on this edition of Iowa Press.


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.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite was founded 30 years ago in Dubuque and owned by 1,200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to the communities we serve.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at


For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, June 30th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest today ran for Governor twice. He was the Republican Party's nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 2006. And since mid-2010 he has been the President & CEO of The Family Leader, an evangelical Christian organization based in Iowa. Bob Vander Plaats, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Vander Plaats: Thanks for having me. Always enjoy being here.

Henderson: Also joining the conversation, Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Brianne Pfannenstiel of The Des Moines Register.

Pfannenstiel: The Iowa legislature is starting to think about how it might address the issue of abortion after the recent Supreme Court ruling here in the state. We're hearing from our sources that they may come back into a special session and try to pass something like a six-week ban, something like the law that didn't make it through the Supreme Court just now. Would a six-week abortion ban go far enough for you?

Vander Plaats: Well, I think in this case, yes, because I think what happens that you have a Supreme Court that went outside of its jurisdiction, outside of its bounds and didn't uphold the law. And they even said they thought the legislature was being hypothetical when they passed the law. And so, when you have such a divided court, 3-3, and if you read the opinion it's a deeply divided court, I think what Governor Reynolds should do is call a special session, get the legislature back in town, make sure the Supreme Court understands this was not a hypothetical exercise, re-pass it and let it run through the system again.

Pfannenstiel: And what would you advocate for after that? Would you support coming back to do a constitutional amendment or a full ban?

Vander Plaats: Well, I think from The Family Leader's perspective is we're going to advocate for the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. That would be our goal. And I believe science is bringing us there. I think more and more Iowans are pro-life today. I think more and more Americans are pro-life today. So, we want to champion a culture of life. We think that's who we are, that's the best of who we are. So, we'd like to champion from conception to natural death.

Masters: After that ruling came forward, your tweet about the ruling seemed to kind of be setting things up similarly to 2010 when you advocated for the three justices who were removed from the bench following the Varnum v. Brien decision that legalized same sex marriage in the state. These three justices aren't up until 2028. Do you think the legislature should impeach them?

Vander Plaats: I definitely think that should be on the table. And the reason I said in the tweet they should either resign or they should be impeached or they should be ousted, being ousted, that's a long time to keep Iowans' attention about what happened in this particular decision. But I believe all Iowans should be outraged at what took place. To think that we're going to get in a legislator's mind or the Governor's mind and say it was hypothetical, their own peers said you're trying to be a super legislature, you're violating the separation of powers, your sworn oath. If that's the case and if they continue down that route, then I think the legislature should put impeachment on the table because you're having three justices who swore an oath to the Constitution clearly, intentionally violate their oath.

Masters: So, where do you draw the line then? This seems to be politicizing the judiciary.

Vander Plaats: I think what happened here, Clay, is that the court politicized itself. If they would say were justices blind and put a rational basis to their decision, I think everybody would be okay. But clearly they went outside their scope and that's why you have three justices so upset because what they're seeing, if you do this you are threatening the integrity of the court and that's why I think if we do what Brianne has suggested, come back with a legislative session, a special session, re-pass heartbeat bill, run it through the court system again, if they then correct themselves because now it's not hypothetical -- but if they stay the course I think impeachment needs to be on the table.

Henderson: Isn't there danger here? Public opinion polls show that a firm majority of Iowans believe there should be access to abortion. You saw what happened in Kansas, a constitutional amendment there failed.

Vander Plaats: No, I don't think there's a danger here at all. Kay, you've heard me say with my boys before, you'll never be right when you do what's wrong, but you'll never be wrong when you do what's right. Standing up for the sanctity of human life is the right thing to do. I think it's going to be how do you communicate it? How do you message it? Do you have a level of compassion for all those who are caught in an unwanted pregnancy? As we tell the church, which we have 2,400 churches plugged into our ministry, what a great opportunity for the church to be the church to be the hands and feet of Jesus at this time in a post-Roe world.

Henderson: Let's shift gears to the presidential campaign. You have made clear that the Iowa Caucus campaign trail is open. Does that mean you're a never Trumper? Because polls show he has a sizeable lead.

Vander Plaats: Absolutely not. I mean, I'm not a never Trumper. As a matter of fact, I consider myself a friend of Trump and I've told him this. And I said, by being a friend is I'll pray for you, I'll cheer you on when you do what's right, and I'll be a voice of accountability when you go outside the bounds. When I say Iowa is wide open, I'm reading the field being very wide open. I think the former President has a 20% to 30% self-inflicted ceiling. I think that's going to be his top, which means there's 70% to 80% of people still willing to be moved. I think people are intrigued by DeSantis, by Scott, by Haley, by Ramaswamy, by Pence. There's a lot of them. Asa Hutchinson. There's a very good field there. And so, I think Iowans do what Iowans do best. They're very wise. They're very savvy. They're not easily enamored. And I think Iowans are going to let their voice be heard across the country.

Henderson: Would it be wise for republicans to nominate Donald Trump?

Vander Plaats: My fear with nominating Donald Trump, I've been very clear about this, I've said, maybe it's time to be Bob Seger and it's time to turn the page. And the reason is you can thank him for all the good things that he's done, and he's done a lot of good things, but I'm too concerned, Kay, that American has made up their mind on the former President and they're kind of exhausted by all the issues of the past when they want to have a compelling vision that will win for the future.

Pfannenstiel: The Republican National Committee has required republican debate participants to sign a loyalty pledge to say that they will support the eventual nominee regardless of who it is. Do you think something like that is a mistake, especially when some candidates like Chris Christie, like Asa Hutchinson have said, I can't support Donald Trump in a general election?

Vander Plaats: Well, first, I can see why the Republican Party would want that, to say sign a loyalty pledge, whoever our nominee is you're all in behind them. I believe it's a mistake. As Kay mentioned, I ran for Governor the last time in 2010 and I was asked to do that when Governor Branstad and I were running against each other. And I said, after this primary, now it's going to be his job to earn my support or my job to earn his support. And I think that's the way it should be at the presidential level as well. Whoever becomes the nominee, they shouldn't take all this support just for granted. They need to earn the other supports in the process. I can see why the party wants to do it. I'm not a big fan of that.

Pfannenstiel: Would you support Donald Trump if he is the eventual nominee for the party?

Vander Plaats: Well, it all comes down to choices, doesn't it? And I think what you're seeing with Joe Biden and with Kamala Harris or whether it's Newsom or Michelle Obama, it is an extreme out of step agenda for this country. And I think Americans are totally tired of that. So, I think when it comes down to choice, I think a lot of Americans -- I used to say I'm not sure Trump could win -- in today's environment the more I'm seeing unveil, I think whoever we put up may win.

Henderson: So, what does Michelle Obama have to do with policy at the federal level?

Vander Plaats: Well, I bring up Michelle Obama because I believe she still will be a player in 2024. I don't believe Joe Biden is going to be your nominee for one second. I believe that it could play out to whether a Newsom comes into play or a Michelle Obama comes into play. I think everybody sees that. Joe Biden, you can love him all you want, he's not at the capacity to be President of the United States today.

Masters: Let's talk about the republican campaign trail for the caucuses and the lead up to that nomination. Four years ago, the democrats were here a lot. Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley were here a lot and there was a lot of republicans running. It felt like they were here constantly. We're kind of seeing these bursts where candidates come in and then we don't see them for a couple of weeks. A lot of that has to do with trying to compete to be on national television for these debates. At the same time, in years past you've endorsed Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz. All of them wound up not being the nominee. They won the Iowa Caucuses but they weren't the nominee in the end. Do you think that Iowa's Republican Caucuses are out of step with the Republican Party as a whole in the country?

Vander Plaats: Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, I think the Democratic Party is missing a real opportunity because right now this country needs more of Iowa and less of D.C. I think the democrats should be here for the caucuses as well. But the republicans, our job is to narrow the field. Our job isn't to say this is your nominee. And I think in 2008 when Huckabee won, I think we did that. I think in '12 when Santorum won, we did that. In '16 when Cruz won, we did that. So, when you narrow the field, now you give the rest of the country, okay here's your field to choose from. Now, I happen to believe we would have been better probably if we would have selected a Huckabee or a Santorum. But that's up to the rest of the country. But I think we do our job, we do the vetting exceptionally well here.

Masters: When you have said that Donald Trump, you would like him not to be the nominee, do you want to endorse early? You've got this Family Leader -- you can do it right now I guess. But, endorse early this year or are you going to wait and continue to watch how the field shakes out?

Vander Plaats: Clay, it's always one of those things where I'd rather not endorse. I say that every cycle, I'd rather not endorse.

Masters: But you always do.

Vander Plaats: Well, you do because it's hard for me to sit on the sideline. But too, you just lose a lot of friends when you endorse. All these guys are our friends right now. When you endorse you lose a lot of friends and you have one friend, right? So, we'll see. It will probably be around Thanksgiving time if I make a decision if I want to jump in the fray in not to endorse.

Pfannenstiel: You've been spending a lot of time with all of these candidates. You've spoken very highly of Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida? How is his campaign? What is your assessment of how he's doing here in Iowa?

Vander Plaats: I think he's doing really well. And I think what you're seeing is that he's obviously one of the front runners. You have Donald Trump and then who is the alternative to Trump? DeSantis obviously fills that void right now. He's willing to do about anything and everything, because some candidates they believe they're too big to do some things, but he's willing to go anywhere and at any time. I think when Donald Trump canceled his one rally scheduled in Water Works Park and then Ron DeSantis flew in for that, basically that same location, I think that was a message of saying, game on, I'm coming to play. But Ron DeSantis has a lot to offer, just like what he's done in Florida as Governor, Governor Reynolds has done here. Governor Reynolds is very popular. The more he emulates that, the better it will be for him. But there's a lot of other candidates too that are catching the attention of Iowans. So, that's why I said early on and I still say it, Iowa is wide open right now.

Pfannenstiel: The evangelical community is incredibly important for these candidates as they try and win over caucus goers. Mike Pence, Tim Scott, those are two people who are making some early in roads there. What is your assessment of them? How are they doing so far?

Vander Plaats: Well, they're doing really well. I mean, Mike Pence is somebody that we have trusted for a long time, whether it be Congressman or Governor of Indiana, and he is one that gave a lot of evangelicals almost an it's okay to vote for Donald Trump because he's on the ticket. And he served the President exceptionally well for four years. So, I think Pence is being well-received and he'll be more and more well-received as time goes on. Tim Scott has a compelling story and he's been a compelling U.S. Senator. And so, when you hear him speak he'll have the crowd in the palm of his hand. And so, I would not take Tim Scott lightly. But a young guy like Vivek Ramaswamy, he has also been making inroads with the evangelical community. And a lot of people like his message. It's common sense, shared values, shared virtues type thing. Nikki Haley being Governor of South Carolina, then Ambassador to the United Nations, she has a great story to tell as well. So, that's what I'm saying, there's a big bench here and Iowans are going to have to do their job as they narrow the field of who do we believe should move on to New Hampshire and beyond?

Henderson: Should the candidates themselves narrow the field? You had 16 people running last time around when Trump won the nomination in 2016 and people say it was because the field was too large.

Vander Plaats: Sure. Being a former accounting teacher, I understand the power of division. And so, the more candidates that are in, the more likely Trump will be your nominee. And so, when people come into our offices or come to my home or when I have a chance to visit with them, most of them will tell me God has called them to run for President. And then I use scripture and I say, and God also tells us in scripture that there is wisdom in a host of counselors. And so, if the counselors aren't approving that call, then you need to make a tough decision, a big boy, big girl decision about do you get out and now support somebody. I think it is important that candidates, that they do see that it's not their time, that they would step aside and get behind whoever it is that they would choose.

Henderson: You have a big event coming up at which Tucker Carlson will be sort of an emcee. Has Fox News given you any grief about that?

Vander Plaats: Fox News has given us no grief at all. And Tucker Carlson, I asked him, he's a friend and I asked him back in February, and he said, boy I'd love to do this and he got the thumbs up from Fox to do it. He won't be the emcee but he'll be actually the moderator, he'll be interviewing the different national voices that will be attending. This is not a candidate event. All these people were invited before they were candidates. But we want a national voice about let's discuss the vision for the future that you would have. And what makes you uniquely prepared to serve at this time? This is not about bashing other people. This is about who are you? What makes you tick? And what is the vision for the country?

Henderson: At the beginning of this program, I described The Family Leader as an evangelical Christian organization. What does it mean to be an evangelical Christian?

Vander Plaats: That's a great question. I think it means a lot to a lot of different people. For us, it's one that you take your faith in Jesus Christ very seriously, you have a personal relationship, you have been born again. And you're okay to communicate that message to a watching and wanting world. And we have a lot of evangelical churches plugged into our ministry. But our ministry specifically is we want to inspire the church, the Church of Jesus Christ, to engage this arena of government to advance God's kingdom and to bless the institution of family. And we believe everybody wins when that happens.

Henderson: What is your definition of Christian nationalism? And is there a danger in this movement that it is moving in that direction?

Vander Plaats: Well, Christian nationalism there's too often where I think you put the American flag first and the gospel second. That's a danger. That's why we say in our ministry look higher. When David was in Jerusalem and he looked to the mountains and he said, where does my help come from? He didn't say the Republican Party. He didn't say Washington, D.C. He said, my help comes from the Lord. So, we say look higher. We say think bigger. This is where Jesus tells Peter get your eyes off of this world and think bigger, think eternally. And then we tell them to expect more. Our Savior came to give life and give life abundantly now. So, expect more at this time.

Henderson: So, why do you have lobbyists at the legislature advocating for certain pieces of legislation?

Vander Plaats: Well, we have lobbyists that Chuck Hurley and his team have led for a number of years. We have a church network that is at the Capitol every day. And basically, the institution of government is God's institution. God instituted the institution of government for the pursuit of righteousness and the pursuit of justice. And so that's why they're there for that. And we believe righteousness exalts a nation, that when that happens a nation will be blessed.

Masters: There's some major construction going on in the Des Moines area near Ankeny and Bondurant for a campus for The Family Leader. Why do you need such a big infrastructure?

Vander Plaats: Well, first of all, I'm not even sure how big it's going to be yet. But what it is, we saw a compelling vision of a farm of 20 plus acres, I think it's actually 20.45 acres that we purchased. It has a venue setting that will seat about 400 people at rounds that was used for weddings. We have a lot of events. We have pastors in, we have elected office holders in, we have youth in for a lot of planning, training, those types of things. So that can be used for that. It has a historic, iconic barn there that will be used for our studios, our boardroom, our team room. And then we're going to be building a ministry center as well. And so, God has blessed our ministry in a lot of ways, not just in Iowa, but right now our footprint is in 18 other states as well implementing our motto. So, I think comes with the growth comes with the blessing and we didn't want to be right at the Capitol to be a "lobbyist" but we wanted to be outside of that.

Pfannenstiel: You've been a big cheerleader for Governor Kim Reynolds. Would she be a good vice-presidential pick this caucus cycle?

Vander Plaats: Well, first of all, I would hate to lose her as the Governor of Iowa. She has done an outstanding job. And Iowans rewarded her big in her re-election in 2022. That said, when people say, who would make a good vice president, frequently I default right away to Governor Kim Reynolds. She's a mom, she's a grandma, she is winsome, but she has a titanium spine. She is threaded with the right stuff. She is somebody who doesn't want the job per se, she's not campaigning for the job, which I think makes her even better. Again, I'd hate to lose her, but I think she would be an outstanding pick for vice president.

Masters: I want to circle back and talk about the last Vice President who is running for President right now, Mike Pence. He talks a lot about when he's here his role during the insurrection and solidifying Joe Biden as the President, doing his job as Vice President, do you think that more candidates should be pushing back on falsehoods about the 2020 election? Donald Trump likes to relitigate that a lot as he's campaigning here again.

Vander Plaats: Well, I think everybody would be best served if we have a campaign of integrity that communicates integrity. And so, were there issues in the 2020 election? I think all of us would say, yeah, there's some issues in the 2020 election and all of us are going to benefit from safe and secure elections of integrity. That's why I think in Iowa I always mention that. We had a candidate for Congress win by 6 votes, Miller-Meeks. And to my knowledge I didn't hear a lot of fraud and this was going -- because we had a system of checks and balances. Every state needs that. When it comes to Mike Pence though, and I get asked about that frequently about could Mike Pence have done that, typically I say, do you want Kamala Harris to be able to do that in 2024? And they say, no. That's probably your answer.

Henderson: Let's talk about some of the legislation that you have supported at the Statehouse, one of which is an education savings account, state-funded, which will then help in the first year low income parents cover the cost of tuition and related expenses at a private school. Why should tax dollars be used at private institutions?

Vander Plaats: It's a great question, Kay. And you know my background. I was educated in the private school system. I went through the Christian school system, graduated from Hull Western Christian, Northwestern College up in Orange City, but then I chose to serve in the public school system. I was a teacher and a coach in the public school system, I was a high school principal in the public school system. What I saw even there with public school, private school, home school, children were best served when parents were in charge of where their child went to school. And so, I've been a big advocate of parental choice in education and I believe it goes back to Deuteronomy 6, it is the parents' right and responsibility to raise the child in the morning, during the day and when they go to bed at night, not the government's right. And I think what is going to happen is it will make public schools better because when there's real competition it will also make public schools better. And public schools, I talk to teachers all the time, the common outcry of teachers is not pay me more money. The common outcry of teachers is just let me teach. Public schools need to get back to academic learning centers, not social engineered centers.

Pfannenstiel: A couple of other issues, we've talked about abortion at the Iowa legislature, but Governor Kim Reynolds has proposed things like access, better access to contraception, better paid family leave policies. Do republicans need to be talking about those issues as they come back and talk about abortion over the next year?

Vander Plaats: Over the next year I think it's always a good opportunity to say, how can we lead with a compassionate heart? And that's why we've been a big proponent of paid family leave. We think the better you allow that family to get established, raise that child at the beginning as well, you have better options. When parents have better jobs they can now make the choice, does one parent either work part-time or do they get to stay at home and raise that child on their own? But I think any way that we can lead with the heart, okay, but still choose what is right -- because everybody understands now that that little baby has a separate DNA, it's got a separate heartbeat, that little girl in her mother's womb, she's a baby, she's not a blob of tissue.

Henderson: I want to go back to something you said earlier about government and how it was constituted. What about the separation of church and state?

Vander Plaats: The separation of church and state was always to protect the church from the state. That was the founder's intent. We don't want to be controlled by the state and have a state-run church. The state was never intended to be beyond the scope and influence of the church. Think Nathan to David. Nathan represented God, he represented the church, David government. Because of that relationship, Nathan was able to tell David you're the man. We think that is a healthy environment, not a bad environment.

Henderson: But what do you say to people of the Jewish faith or other faiths or no faith at all when they hear you talk about how you want influence in government?

Vander Plaats: Well, it's not how I want influence in government and I believe probably the cosmic battle is, does God exist or not? The Judeo-Christian faith we have a lot of commonalities, we have a lot of shared virtue and values and want the same thing. But I think at the end of the day, is there a God or isn't there a God? And if there is a God we should go according to his principles and he precepts. If there isn't a God, then everybody should be allowed to do whatever they want, survival of the fittest, and you'll have complete chaos and division of what we're seeing now.

Henderson: Bob Vander Plaats, we are out of time for a discussion today. Thanks for your time.

Vander Plaats: Thank you. It always goes so quick. Thank you.

Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press online at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.



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.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite was founded 30 years ago in Dubuque and owned by 1,200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to the communities we serve.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at