Bob Vander Plaats is probably Donald Trump’s least-favorite Iowa Republican. But Trump isn’t the only one peeved at the Hawkeye State Kingmaker. In fact, considerable daylight between him and his favored presidential candidate has some Iowans calling flip-flop.
Vander Plaats’s chosen candidate espouses a view on marriage that Vander Plaats himself ardently criticized in previous election cycles. That candidate, Ted Cruz, holds that states should have the power to define marriage while Vander Platts believes there should be a federal effort to ban gay marriage. In the past, Vander Plaats has compared that stance to defending Jim Crow. But in 2016—to the surprise of many—he seems totally fine with it.
It’s a tension that irks operatives and confuses activists—and it shows just how complicated the marriage issue has become for conservative traditionalists.
Same-sex marriage hasn’t taken up much oxygen in this Republican primary. While most of the country—including most young Republicans—is fine with it, a powerful sector of the Republican base still steadfastly opposes it. And chief among those is Bob Vander Plaats, who heads a group called the Iowa Family Leader.
You may not know much about Bob—if you don’t follow Iowa presidential primary politicking, you’d have little reason to. But over the past few election cycles, he’s emerged as one of the most powerful power brokers in one of the most powerful states.
Conservative candidates fight hard for his endorsement because he helms an energetic network of grassroots volunteers. And since the Iowa caucuses are among the most complex political contests in the U.S., organized activism is everything.
So he’s a big deal. And ride-or-die, no-exceptions opposition to gay marriage is his signature cause.
It’s so important to him, in fact, that he compared the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 decision legalizing same-sex marriage to the Dred Scott decision. He then spearheaded successful efforts in 2010 to vote out three of the justices who voted for it (in 2012, a push to oust a fourth failed).
“I think it will send a message across the country that power resides with the people,” he said at the time. “It’s ‘we the people,’ not ‘we the courts.’”
But his reach has limits. In 2010, he took on longtime Iowa pol Terry Branstad in the state’s gubernatorial primary. He made his campaign practically single-issue on marriage—and he lost. Despite defeat, his clout with Iowa conservatives didn’t wane. In the 2012 Republican presidential primary, his group drafted a Marriage Vow that candidates had to sign if they wanted to be considered as potential endorsees. Signatories promised a “steadfast embrace” of an amendment to the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage (vow-signers also promised “[r]ejection of Shariah Islam” and to protect women and children from “all forms of pornography and prostitution”). Only Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann signed on. Santorum went on to nab Vander Plaats’s endorsement and win the Iowa caucuses.
It wasn’t Vander Plaats’s first time using the golden touch; Vander Plaats was the state chairman for Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential bid, when the governor won the caucuses.
Central to Vander Plaats’s approach is the belief that gay marriage must be stopped in the U.S.—no excuses, no exceptions, no nonsense. During the 2012 contest, his group explicitly ruled out backing Ron Paul due to his stance that individual states should be able to decide whether or not to recognize same-sex unions.
“The stumbling block for the board regarding Representative Paul dealt primarily with ‘States’ Rights’ as it pertains to the sanctity of human life and God’s design for marriage,” it said in a press release.
In Vander Plaats’s thinking, giving states the right to recognize same-sex marriages was akin to letting them make their own calls on slavery or abortion (totally unacceptable).
Now, though, things seem a little different—and some of Vander Plaats’s old allies are a little baffled. That’s because Vander Plaats opted to endorse Ted Cruz. Cruz, of course, is no ally of marriage equality. The Texas senator iterates and reiterates and re-reiterates that he, personally, opposes gay marriage. But his official stance is that states should be able to make their own decisions on the issue.
“He believes that since the constitution does not mention marriage, the definition of marriage is up to the states,” emailed campaign spokesman Rick Tyler.
In 2014, Barney Frank praised Cruz’s view as “an evolution” on the issue.
That isn’t what Vander Plaats believes. It also isn’t what Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum believe; both back a constitutional amendment to limit marriage rights to heterosexual couples.
Thus, Vander Plaats backs a candidate who holds a position on marriage that he himself said was disqualifying in 2012.
“Bob is a good guy, but like most power-broker endorsements, his decisions are based on politics more than principle,” said Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign chair in 2012. “Dr. Paul was 100 percent committed to principle, and many found no political advantage in supporting him. Ted Cruz is much more compromising and acceptable to the Establishment, so power brokers are happy to manipulate their own rules to give him an advantage, and gain access to to him.”
Benton isn’t the only one who says Vander Plaats is being inconsistent. Drew Ivers, a former finance chairman for the Iowa Republican Party, said Vander Plaats and Cruz share a Biblical view of marriage. But he added that Vander Plaats seems to have shifted his stance.
“He is flipping in that he’s abandoning his support of a federal marriage amendment whereas before that was his main thrust,” Ivers said.
And one Iowa conservative Evangelical activist who volunteered on Vander Plaats’ 2010 gubernatorial campaign said she was stunned that he backed Cruz.
“He’s a very strong defender of traditional marriage,” she said. “And always on the states’ rights position—he was adamantly against it, he always quoted Abraham Lincoln: ‘States don’t have the right to do wrong.’”
“It’s confusing,” she said of the Cruz endorsement.
Another longtime grassroots Evangelical activist echoed that frustration.
“It’s kind of a head-scratcher trying to figure it out,” he said. “Of all of the candidates, all of the choices out there, why would you pick Cruz of all people?”
“A lot of people I know have wondered the same thing,” he continued. “What’s this all about, is there some kind of a pre-planned strategy that we don’t know about, or something behind the scenes? It’s like he’s either completely changed his views on it or -- something. I don’t really know.”
Vander Plaats’s group didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether he’s flip-flopped on the issue. But for many conservative Iowans, his comments won’t matter; Vander Plaats, viewed by outsiders as a titan of purity, has caved.