These Three Kingmakers
The most important people in the GOP primary, and what their influence says about the party.
There are plenty of reasons why the Republican Party has dug in so deep, with so many demands, on the debt limit. It's what its new members of Congress want. It's what their presidential candidates, largely following their lead, want. And it's what Jim DeMint wants.
DeMint's wishes matter because, besides being the de facto leader of the Tea Party in the Senate, he has established himself as a kingmaker in South Carolina, one of the three early-primary states a Republican presidential candidate needs to win. In New Hampshire, the kingmaker is the businessman and failed statewide candidate Ovide Lamontagne. In Iowa, it's the Iowa FAMiLY Leader's CEO (and failed statewide candidate) Bob Vander Plaats.
Of the three, Vander Plaats is the only one trying to hold GOP candidates to a pledge on social issues—and he is having the toughest time getting candidates to follow his lead. For a decade, Vander Plaats has established himself as the Iowa social conservative who has to be dealt with. In his second run for governor, he dropped out of the race only to become his rival's running mate. When that didn't work, he chaired Mike Huckabee's campaign in the state, and basked in the credit when Huckabee won the caucuses.
Like DeMint, he created leverage, used it, and got more of it. He invites candidates to FAMiLY Leader forums, and they show up. He can bestow forgiveness or credibility on the candidates who ask for it. Newt Gingrich may take fire for his three marriages, but when he donates to the 2010 campaign to defeat Iowa judges who supported gay unions, or he talks with Vander Plaats, he gets forgiveness.
"Here's the deal," Vander Plaats says. "We're a Christian organization, which means a cornerstone of our faith is forgiveness and redemption. We're very clear that we're not trying to beat up people for their past. We've all fallen short, we can all move forward. And Newt Gingrich is very open about his shortcomings. He's shown a degree of maturity and humility."
Vander Plaats doesn't rule out contact with a presidential campaign unless they rule it out first. (He's utterly dismissive of Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman: "They're going to run from the debate," he shrugs.) But he's running into trouble as he tries to pin the candidates down. At the start of July he unveiled "The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family." It was a long, footnoted document giving candidates the chance to defend the sacred institution and get in with Vander Plaats. It backfired. The full version of the vow, which only Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum signed, included a preamble condemnation of pornography and a line about how "slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household" than a baby born in the Obama era.
The rest of the candidates rejected the vow. Bachmann, when asked, rejected the slavery portion of it. The GOP's speaker pro tem in the House started saying what was obvious: Vander Plaats had lost clout.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
DeMint by by Alex Wong/Getty Images; Vander Plaats by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Lamontagne courtesy Ovide Lamontagne.