Republicans who breathed a sigh of relief after Rep. Steve King (R-IA) declined to pursue Iowa’s open Senate seat in 2014 find themselves back on edge this week, after reports that influential right-wing activist Bob Vander Plaats is considering entering the race.
“He would consider looking at it in the middle of October, and decide by the end of the year,” spokesman Dave Barnett told BuzzFeed.
Vander Plaats, who serves as president and CEO of The Family Leader, is one of the most powerful social conservatives in America. Often referred to as a kingmaker in Iowa GOP politics, Vander Plaats’ broad political network led the charge to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who had supported a decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the state in 2009, and his vocal support helped Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum rise to the top of the Iowa Caucuses.
Vander Plaats has sought public office before, running unsuccessfully for governor in 2002, 2006, and 2010. In his final gubernatorial run, he claimed over 40 percent of the vote against popular former governor (and eventual general election winner) Terry Branstad.
It’s not hard to envision Vander Plaats excelling in the GOP primary for Senate. Top recruits such as U.S. Representative Tom Latham and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reyonds have spurned the National Republican Senatorial Committee, leaving a relatively weak field contesting the nomination. Former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, state Senator Joni Ernst, right-wing radio host Sam Clovis, and David Young — a former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) — are the only declared candidates, and none can match Vander Plaats’ name recognition and political machine. Critically, if no candidate claims over 35 percent in a primary, then the nomination will be chosen via state convention — a setting in which Vander Plaats’ activist base could exert significant influence.
This is a big problem for the Republican Party. Vander Plaats has attracted almost nonstop controversy throughout his political career, and he would be an easy general election target for U.S. Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA), the presumptive Democratic nominee. Among other incidents that should give the GOP uncomfortable memories of Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, and the rest of the extreme candidates who have cost the party winnable elections over the past few election cycles, Vander Plaats has:
—Praised Russian president Vladimir Putin as a hero for his government’s violent crackdown on LGBT rights
—Suggested that same-sex marriage is a “public health risk” like secondhand smoke and can reduce life expectancy “by about 20-35 years,” along with falsely claiming that the “cancer rate is 90x higher in homosexual men”
—Applauded Donald Trump’s long-running birther crusade
—Demanded that Republican presidential candidates sign a pledge implying that African-American families were better off as slaves than they are today.
It’s not hard to see how Braley could paint Vander Plaats as too extreme for Iowa — and how Democrats could use Vander Plaats as a broader symbol of Republican extremism, like they did to Akin before him.
Iowa should give the GOP a competitive chance to pick up one of the net of six seats that it needs to claim a Senate majority in the 2014 midterms. After all, it’s a state in which 55 percent of voters disapprove of President Barack Obama, according to a July Quinnipiac survey. But Iowa Republicans have been unable to find a strong nominee, leaving the field open for the extreme Bob Vander Plaats not just to blow one winnable seat, but put the entire party at risk of another embarrassing meltdown.
Photo: Here In Iowa via Flickr.com