Jim DeMint, Bob Vander Plaats, Ovide Lamontagne: The three most important people in the Republican Party.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 22 2011 2:28 PM

These Three Kingmakers

The most important people in the GOP primary, and what their influence says about the party.

U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) speaks during a news conference June 22, 2011 on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Jim DeMint speaks during a news conference on June 22, 2011

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.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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.

(L-R) Bob Vander Plaat, former U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-AR), Minute Man project founder Jim Gilchrist and Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Bob Vander Plaats (left) of Iowa FAMiLY Leader

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.

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"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.

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