The Ted Cruz train rolls on in Iowa.
The GOP hopeful on Thursday picked up the highly coveted endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, an Evangelical leader who heads an influential social conservative advocacy group in the state. "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.
Recent history has shown Vander Plaats to be a GOP kingmaker in Iowa. He spent the better part of the year leading up to the 2008 contest stumping for Mike Huckabee, who ultimately coasted to a nearly 10-point victory over Mitt Romney. Four years later, Vander Plaats kept his powder dry for considerably longer before throwing his support behind Rick Santorum less than a month before the 2012 caucus. Santorum, who had been polling in the low single-digits, went on to eek out a victory in the Hawkeye State with about 25 percent of the vote. Cruz was already popular with the state's Evangelical voters, but Vander Plaats’ blessing will make him even more so.
Vander Plaat’s decision is a serious blow to a number of Cruz’s rivals who are also hoping that Christian conservative voters will propel them to a victory in Iowa, where Evangelicals make up roughly half of GOP caucus-goers. It’s pretty much the final blow for Huckabee and Santorum, both of whom are now that much more unlikely to repeat in Iowa. It’s also a major setback for Ben Carson, who had briefly emerged as the Evangelical favorite before being battered by skepticism over his personal biography and his ability to grasp anything more than the basics of foreign policy.
Donald Trump was, theoretically at least, also in the running for Vander Plaat’s endorsement, though that was always difficult to imagine. Appearing at one of the Family Leader’s GOP cattle calls this summer, the billionaire bumbled through a series of questions about his faith. “When we go in church and I drink the little wine … and I eat the little cracker,” he said, “I guess that’s a form of asking forgiveness.”
For Cruz, meanwhile, the announcement is the latest sign that his "religous liberty" pep rallies—featuring "SPECIAL GUESTS VICTIMIZED BY GOVERNMENT PERSECUTION"—and aggressively anti-abortion views are paying off among Iowa's social conservatives. He can now add Vander Plaat’s endorsement to that of two other key members of the conservative Evangelical community in the state: Rep. Steve King and radio host Steve Deace. This time last month, Cruz sat in a distant third-place in Iowa polls with about half the support of Trump and Carson. He’s since passed Carson and has closed the gap to Trump to less than four points.