Influential Iowa evangelical Bob Vander Plaats endorses Ted Cruz

I’m surprised to see people in the Headlines thread saying “zzzzzz” and “who?” in the comments. Vander Plaats may not be a household name but if you follow conservative politics, especially presidential politics as most of us who read blogs do, you know who he is. He’s head of the Family Leader, a prominent Christian organization in a state where Republicans are famously socially conservative. He endorsed Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012 and both won the caucuses. He’s a kingmaker. If nothing else, this should accelerate the defection of evangelicals from Carson’s campaign to Cruz’s, which means a bigger lead for Cruz over Trump there.

With the possible exception of Steve King, who’s already backed Cruz, this may be the most influential endorsement a Republican can get in Iowa.

“At the end of the day, we truly believe that Ted Cruz is the most consistent and principled conservative who has the ability to not only win Iowa but I believe to win the (Republican) nomination,” Vander Plaats, the president of the Family Leader, told The Des Moines Register in an interview Wednesday…

The board for the Family Leader decided it would not endorse, which means the organization’s resources, including its mailing lists or staff, won’t be used to promote Cruz, Vander Plaats told the Register.

But the board voted 9-0 that Cruz is the best candidate; one member abstained because of a long-standing friendship with another candidate. And the board gave the go-ahead for Vander Plaats, Family Leader vice president Chuck Hurley and board chairman Robert Cramer to make personal endorsements. All three chose Cruz.

So that makes Vander Plaats, King, and local talk-radio star Steve Deace all in for Cruz. Think it’s a coincidence that they’re united? I mentioned this a few weeks ago but Vander Plaats said recently of evangelicals and the nomination process, “Our destruction in the past has been division.” Too many Christian values voters have been split among too many candidates to make a huge difference for any single one. That’s how they ended up with McCain and Romney as nominees. What Vander Plaats didn’t say explicitly but which he hinted at in the quote above is that Huckabee and Santorum were never top-tier threats to win the nomination. Each of them came close to a big win that would have made their races interesting, Huckabee in South Carolina in 2008 and Santorum in Ohio in 2012, but in the end each was a niche candidate. Cruz is not — or rather, he’s a man of many niches which, welded together, could be enough to win. He’s a tea partier, an evangelical, an “outsider,” a Jacksonian, and, thanks to Trump babbling about mass deportation and barring Muslims from entering the U.S., a comparative moderate whom center-right Republicans would probably grudgingly prefer to Trump. I think big-name Iowa evangelicals set out this time not just to back the same guy but to make sure that guy will contend into the summer. If the state goes for another marginal no-chancer like Ben Carson just because he’s a devout Christian, the rap on Iowa for the next four years will be that it doesn’t matter anymore because it doesn’t pick nominees. “It’s a straw poll for social cons,” the media would say. Cruz winning would avert that.

Here’s Vander Plaats on Rubio, by the way, a guy touted by some as a threat in Iowa notwithstanding his reputation as a “moderate.” Rubio’s pretty socially conservative himself and speaks as compellingly about his faith as Cruz does, if not more so. What’s Vander Plaats’s problem with a guy like that? Guess:

“I would label him as a conservative,” Vander Plaats said of Rubio, a Florida U.S. senator.

“However, I do believe the one issue he decided he was going to lead in Washington, D.C., with (Democratic New York U.S. Sen. Chuck) Schumer and (Republican Arizona U.S. Sen.) John McCain and the ‘gang of eight’ gave and gives everybody a little bit of cause for pause. And with immigration being such a big issue today, I think that’s going to be a hurdle that’s going to be a very steep for Marco Rubio to clear.”

Exit question: There’s still one big endorsement left in Iowa, isn’t there? It might not matter hugely to social conservatives but it’ll matter to Iowa Republicans generally, especially if it comes in the final days before the caucuses. Which way is Joni Ernst leaning? She said a year ago that she wouldn’t endorse before the caucuses but the candidates must be begging her — especially Rubio, who needs some kind of buzz there. I wonder if there’s some scenario where she’d reverse herself and back someone. If Rubio is in contention, would that do it? If Trump and Cruz are neck and neck and Cruz needs one last push, would that do it?

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