This weekend’s “Thanksgiving Family Forum” at a Des Moines megachurch probably seemed like a great idea to Iowa social conservatives when it was first developed. You’d have the presidential candidates arrayed around a “Thanksgiving table,” obediently waiting for a symbolic serving of activist support. In the pews would be thousands of stolid Iowans of the sort most likely to show up at the January 3 caucuses. Wielding the microphone would be focus-group king Frank Luntz, probing the worldviews of the candidates to determine their fidelity to a teavangelical, big-God, small-government creed. And at the head of the table, in spirit at least, would be Iowa right-wing kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats, ready to crown one of the candidates as the Mike Huckabee of 2012.
It could still play out that way, of course, but the political context surrounding the Thanksgiving Family Forum, cosponsored by Vander Plaats’ FAMiLY Leader group, the National Organization for Marriage, and Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink affiliate, suggests the effort to unite Christian Right voters around a single candidate in Iowa could prove too little and too late. Mitt Romney isn’t even bothering to show up for Vander Plaats’s intended display of power, which may be a shrewd estimate of its futility. And with CSPAN pulling its cameras, the event won’t even be televised (though it will be live-streamed by CitizenLink). Indeed, Iowa’s social conservatives, long used to enjoying a remarkable degree of fealty from any GOP candidate hoping to catch fire as a result of a strong caucus showing, are facing an incredibly frightening prospect: their own irrelevance.
Until very recently, Bob Vander Plaats, a perennial statewide candidate who made his mark on the Iowa political landscape with his co-chairmanship of Huck’s 2008 upset win and his role in the successful 2010 purge of three of the Iowa Supreme Court judges who issued the decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009, had enjoyed outsize political influence over the Republican Party. And with the 2012 GOP presidential cycle looming, most pundits assumed his Iowa-based group would only garner an even greater status within the party. But FAMiLY Leader quickly stumbled in its first big bid for relevance with its sponsorship in July of a pledge document, entitled “The Marriage Vow,” which was intended to mousetrap candidates lusting for a victory in the August Iowa GOP Straw Poll into a litany of very specific right-wing positions on “family issues” (e.g., same-sex relationships, abortion, and even contraception and divorce). The group’s Vow was so clumsily drafted (implying, for example, that African-American families were better off as slaves than they are today) that all the candidates other than Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum felt free to give it a pass, even though Vander Plaats warned it was a precondition to receiving the group’s endorsement.
Even more importantly, Iowa social conservatives seemed to hurt themselves through their inability to unite behind and stick with a single candidate. Maybe if they’d accepted Tim Pawlenty’s arduous courtship earlier this year, he would have emerged as the “viable conservative alternative” to Mitt Romney. Perhaps if they’d united behind Michele Bachmann the day after her victory in the Iowa Straw Poll, her campaign would have shown more staying power. But instead they hopped over to Rick Perry, only to abandon ship for Herman Cain, who with no end in sight for his sexual harassment/sexual assault scandal is hardly looking like a safe bet for the godly.
This demolition derby of candidates acceptable to people like Vander Plaats has left Iowa’s social conservatives in a highly vulnerable position now. If Mitt Romney manages to win the caucuses with the kind of half-hearted effort he has put into the state so far—all the while ignoring would-be kingmakers—the whole supposition that future candidates must spend every other day in the Hawkeye State for months and years before votes are cast will be significantly undermined. A Ron Paul win, meanwhile, would simply be a testament to his own permanent following, not to any Iowa-specific factor, and would also waste Iowa’s endorsement, since there’s no chance he’ll win the nomination. And even if Cain or Gingrich come out on top, it too will prove the irrelevance of directly courting Iowa’s social conservative leaders: Their surges in state polls are a result of the national appeal they generated through debate performances, not through their practically nonexistent ground-games in Iowa. Indeed, it must be disturbing to all Iowa Republicans to consider the fate of Pawlenty and Bachmann, candidates who “played by the rules” with an intensive focus on personal appearances and organizational efforts in the state only to come away with nothing to show for it.
So to whom can Vander Plaats and his group turn now for redemption? Rick Santorum is the only other candidate who has devoted real time and resources to campaigning around the state, which is why teavangelicals who believe their leverage in Iowa is the most important source of their leverage in the national GOP could give him a good long look at the Thanksgiving Family Forum. Some might find it strange that a Roman Catholic like Santorum could wind up being the last-gasp hope of Vander Plaats and his associates, but only a few cranks among conservative evangelicals still regard Rome as “the whore of Babylon;” most are long used to close cooperation with traditionalist Catholics in the anti-choice and anti-gay rights movements. Moreover, Santorum not only signed the “Marriage Vow,” but has defined his candidacy from the beginning in terms of hard-core, no-compromise social conservatism, even as better-known conservative candidates like Perry and Cain struggled on occasion with their positions on abortion and gay marriage. But in getting behind a candidate as uncharismatic and unrealistic as Santorum, Vander Plaats and his associates would be taking a big risk: If Santorum fails to launch, Iowa’s social conservatives would appear to be paper tigers hardly worth noticing—and that would no doubt be considered the worst fate of all.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.