SIOUX CITY, IOWA — After souring on former President Donald Trump, influential conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats has been outspoken about a rising movement to support an alternative to Trump – a candidate who will “cast a vision that can unite all of America, not just part of America.”
Considered “Iowa’s most prominent social conservative” by The New York Times, Vander Plaats maintains significant influence over evangelicals in the early-voting state. Republican presidential candidates who want to win the Iowa caucus must win over Vander Plaats, who backed the Iowa winner three times.
“IOWA IS WIDE OPEN”
At this stage of the campaign, Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of The Family Leader, a conservative Christian parent organization for the Iowa Family Policy Center, says Iowa caucusgoers are just now getting to know the candidates.
“Iowa is wide open right now,” Vander Plaats told The Florida Standard.
Iowa conservatives have always taken their primary process seriously. Vander Plaats says Iowans are diligent in their approach to the caucuses because they truly want to learn what makes each candidate tick.
“They not only know of the former president [Trump], they know the former president because he was president for four years and he’s been to Iowa quite a bit,” Vander Plaats said.
But while Iowans have heard about the other candidates, including Governor Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Mike Pence and Tim Scott, Vander Plaats says “they just don’t know them yet.”
“They’re getting to know them,” Vander Plaats said. Comparing the process to a courtship phase at the beginning of a relationship.
Iowans are exhausted with Trump, according to Vander Plaats. They’re tired of the name calling, complaints from the past and the constant worry about a cloud over the former president’s head.
“They’re motivated by a vision for the future,” Vander Plaats said, pointing out that Ron DeSantis is doing a lot of things right in Iowa.
But Vander Plaats also sees Trump making mistakes in the early-voting state, something he believes may be deliberate.
“I think he’s making mistakes deliberately,” Vander Plaats said. “Mistakes like going after the most popular governor probably in our state’s history – Governor Kim Reynolds – on her loyalty.”
Vander Plaats also pointed out that Trump snubbed Reynolds at the Iowa state fair and skipped his leadership summit – an influential evangelical conference attended by six other Republican presidential hopefuls.
“I think some of that is built up in case he loses Iowa,” Vander Plaats said. “You know, he’ll have built-in excuses for why he lost.”
AN ALTERNATIVE TO TRUMP
But the biggest interest right now in Iowa, Vander Plaats says, is the search for an alternative to former President Donald Trump.
“The media narrative may be driven by polling – both national polling and even some early state polling – but I see nothing on the ground that gives validity to these early poll numbers showing the former president with 25 to 35 point leads in the state of Iowa or nationally,” Vander Plaats said.
“I think the reason he’s enjoying these types of poll numbers is, first of all, people know him, they do like what his administration did, especially in comparison to Joe Biden right now,” Vander Plaats told The Florida Standard.
But Vander Plaats predicts that by December there will be a movement towards a “very clear alternative to Trump,” noting that news of Trump’s indictments may be giving him sympathy in the polls.
“They break late,” Vander Plaats said of Iowans. “So I would worry much more around Thanksgiving time, first of December, than I would at state fair time and Labor Day.”
AN ENDORSEMENT ON THE WAY?
Although he has not yet endorsed a candidate in the presidential race, Vander Plaats says he’ll likely do so shortly after Thanksgiving – and it will be the candidate who “rises up as the clear alternative to Trump.”
“In regards to Ron DeSantis, I think his efforts are noted,” Vander Plaats told The Florida Standard.
“It may not be showing up in the polling numbers right now, but he doesn’t need his poll numbers to be strong while his organization is weak,” Vander Plaats added. “He’d rather have his organization be strong and his poll numbers be weak at this stage.”
Impressed by DeSantis’ growing support with Iowa legislators, Vander Plaats says people are taking notice. More than 10,000 Iowans have pledged to caucus for DeSantis in January.
“He’s doing the right things,” Vander Plaats said, referring to DeSantis’ tour of all 99 Iowa counties and the grassroots efforts by local county campaign chairs. “He’s basically showing that all of Iowa matters, not just some of Iowa matters.”
Conservatives, according to Vander Plaats, are seeking a candidate who can “cast a vision that can unite all of America, not just part of America.”
“I think they’re looking for someone that can be a statesman for the international community, while being a bold and courageous CEO back at home,” Vander Plaats says. “But at the end of the day, I think they’re also looking for a role model again.”