In the lead-up to the first caucus in the presidential race, GOP hopefuls barnstorm Iowa, turning up at town halls, cornfields, schools, the state fair, and Bob Vander Plaats’s house.

He and wife Darla have welcomed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, and entrepreneur and political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy. DeSantis, Ramaswamy, and Sen. Tim Scott (who has since suspended his presidential campaign) also visited his church, Soteria Des Moines, a Baptist congregation in the state’s capital.

Vander Plaats is head of The Family Leader, an Iowa-based conservative Christian nonprofit with ties to Focus on the Family. He has built up a winning streak picking out the past three GOP caucus winners in his state—Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, and Ted Cruz in 2016—and holds one of the most-coveted Republican endorsements.

“Bob Vander Plaats is a kingmaker,” said Jim Tillotson, president of Faith Baptist Bible College in nearby Ankeny. “I would think his endorsement carries a lot of weight.”

Vander Plaats, though, tends to downplay his influence. “It’s not my endorsement,” the 60-year-old told Christianity Today. “It’s more that I’ve had a front-row seat to this entire process.”

In the lead-up to the caucuses, when he wasn’t brushing shoulders with candidates or hosting them during The Family Leader events, Vander Plaats was working from a nondescript office park in Urbandale, Iowa, where the ministry is headquartered.

His office is crowded with traces of his Iowa roots: a card with “I heart basketball” recalls his days on Northwestern College’s Red Raiders team, and a flip calendar displays family photos. A round tin with Wilhelmina peppermints, an homage to his Dutch heritage, is within arm’s reach on the table he uses as a desk.

American flags are everywhere: Some small ones on a desktop stand, several draped over a couch, another printed on a cushion. Behind him, a small flag waves near the US Capitol in a painting by Texas-born artist G. Harvey, released by Focus on the Family. It’s titled Time of Hope.

This year, Vander Plaats is holding out hope. Though the polls in his state show former president Donald Trump leading the field by over 30 points, he has backed DeSantis, believing him to have better odds at beating Joe Biden in November.

“I do see a big shift coming by January 15,” the day of the caucus, Vander Plaats said. “If I happened to believe otherwise, I wouldn’t have endorsed him. I think Ron DeSantis can win.”

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While The Family Leader doesn’t endorse presidential candidates, Vander Plaats takes his personal endorsement seriously, seeking counsel from his family and close friends and talking to God before announcing his pick.

“We’ve bathed this in prayer, probably since the 2020 election,” he said, “that God would raise up the one that we know that … we should rally behind.”

The Family Leader invites Iowans to join in that outpouring of election prayer, offering a 14-day prayer and fasting devotional around the 2024 race.

When asked what he is looking for in the next president, Vander Plaats slips into preacher mode, referencing Micah 6:8 in describing a leader who would “seek justice, but to love mercy and walk humbly with our God, and, really, to find a shepherd today.”

Vander Plaats pulled from the parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel of Matthew to talk about the high call of leadership.

“A shepherd will lay down their life for the flock. A shepherd puts the cause of the flock above himself all the time,” he said. “I think America, but also the world, would be well served if we had a shepherd in the role of government that we could all look up to and say, That’s leadership.”

The lifelong Iowan grew up in the faith, attending a Christian high school and a small Reformed Church in America college in Iowa called Northwestern. His career began as a high school accounting teacher. Eventually, he became a high school principal in his hometown of Sheldon.

During that time in the ’90s, his school district and another were sued by the Iowa Civil Liberties Union over a student-organized effort to lead commencement prayer. Vander Plaats recalls the federal district court judge questioning him during the case about his background, since he went to Christian schools. Vander Plaats told his alma mater that he got the impression the judge “thought my purpose was to proselytize.” The school districts won on appeal.

The birth of Vander Plaats’s third son in 1993 caused his life to take a turn, and he became more involved in pro-life and pro-family causes. Lucas Vander Plaats had a rare brain disorder resulting in lifelong physical and mental disabilities that required 24-hour care.

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A few years after Lucas was born, Vander Plaats became CEO of Opportunities Unlimited, an Iowa organization that assists people with disabilities. He shared his son’s story and his testimony of God’s presence in the midst of suffering in a book published by Focus on the Family in 2007; Joni Eareckson Tada wrote the foreword.

Lucas was a “miracle” who caused the family to look “beyond where we were,” Vander Plaats told Northwestern after his son passed away in 2021 at age 28.

As he became more interested in pro-family policy, Vander Plaats’s interest turned to the public square. In 2002, 2006, and 2010, he mounted gubernatorial bids. Each came up short, including withdrawing in 2006 to run for lieutenant governor.

But instead of vanishing from the public eye, his influence continued to grow. In 2008, he chaired Mike Huckabee’s winning campaign in Iowa. He spearheaded a successful effort in 2010 to oust three members of the Iowa Supreme Court who had voted to overturn a previous state law that resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriages.

That same year, he took on the role of president and CEO of The Family Leader. The Iowa group wants to see Christians engage the government with a pro-family gospel witness. It puts on programs to connect pastors and lawmakers, holds prayer events, and produces voter resources around policies and candidates.

The organization has continued to punch above its weight in a state where churchgoing voters are a powerful bloc. Seventy-seven percent of Iowans are Christians, including 28 percent that are evangelical. In the 2016 caucuses, 62 percent of Republicans who participated in entrance polls in Iowa self-identified as white evangelical Christians.

But white evangelicals aren’t the same group as they were back then. Over Trump’s presidency, more of his supporters began to identify as evangelical whether they were consistent churchgoers or not.

“People who love their church and believe in God, but haven’t been typical churchgoers—he’s brought those people into the fold,” Pastors for Trump founder Jackson Lahmeyer told The New York Times, which noted that Iowa’s church attendance dropped by 13 percent, more than any other state, per the US Religion Census.

These self-identified evangelicals may be less likely to look to organizations like The Family Leader during campaign season.

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“The Family Leader in Christian circles is known. But, you know, the average Republican churchgoer, who is Christian but maybe isn’t an activist, isn’t maybe even familiar with The Family Leader or with Vander Plaats by name,” said Jeff Taylor, an Iowa state senator and political science professor at Dordt University in Sioux Center.

Taylor noted that the “the endorsements that DeSantis has gotten haven’t changed the dynamics for him.”

At a Trump rally in Coralville, Iowa, in December, Iowa voter Peggy Fleakei told CT she’s locked in on her support for Trump. She said the former president “stands for so much of our American values, Christianity, our rights as Americans.”

Vander Plaats recognizes that most of his fellow Iowa evangelicals agree, so his approach is to convince them that they’re “not being disloyal to him by going to Gov. DeSantis,” who he believes has a better chance in the general election.

He compared the scenario to another upset a couple years ago. When Iowa’s longtime incumbent Republican congressman Steve King lost influence in the wake of a series of offensive comments around race and white supremacy, Vander Plaats threw his support behind King’s primary challenger, a relatively unknown state senator.

Though he had been a supporter of King’s, Vander Plaats chalked the change up to a “growing fatigue” with King, whose “voice is no longer desired at the table.” If the scandal-laden politician made it to the general election, Vander Plaats argued, it could put “everybody that’s on the ballot with him … at risk.” In 2020, the state senator, Randy Feenstra, bested King to win the primary. The political newcomer also easily won the general election.

Vander Plaats wants to repeat that in 2024. Like he did with King, Vander Plaats draws his argument along largely pragmatic lines. Americans “want to turn the page from an 80-year-old generation to the next generation, and have somebody who can lead and serve for two terms, not one,” Vander Plaats told CT.

Vander Plaats is bullish that Iowa polling is getting it wrong, and that Trump’s support may be more fragile than it appears: “Iowa always, always, always breaks late. I believe they’re going to break late again,” he told CT.

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He has records to point to; in the 2015 presidential cycle, Ted Cruz was trailing five points in second place to then-candidate Trump. Vander Plaats endorsed him anyway, and Cruz won the caucuses by three points.

Back in 2012, Vander Plaats also predicted a surprise victory for Rick Santorum, who had been relegated to the bottom of the pack of six Republican presidential candidates. Santorum pulled ahead two weeks after Vander Plaats’s backing. The Iowa leader said in an interview he received a congratulatory phone call telling him: “You should take the credit.” It was from Donald Trump.

He’s not expecting a call this year.

During November’s Thanksgiving forum put on by The Family Leader, DeSantis, Haley, and Ramaswamy made their arguments to Vander Plaats—and the room full of evangelical voters—with Trump noticeably absent, as he skipped debates and delayed campaigning in Iowa until January. “Sometimes some guests don’t show up,” Vander Plaats said.

When Vander Plaats officially endorsed DeSantis afterward, Trump responded by accusing him of scamming and disinformation, telling his supporters, “I don’t believe anything Bob Vander Plaats says.” Vander Plaats stated that his endorsement couldn’t be bought.

Tillotson, Faith Baptist Bible College’s president, said some Christians have been turned off by Trump taking shots at Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, who also endorsed DeSantis.

“There’s a lot of Christians that support Trump. And they’ll point to the good things … they’ll point to Roe v. Wade getting overturned and that not happening if those Supreme Court justices weren’t there,” he said. “But then you also have Christians who look at how he runs his private life, and the arrogance that he seems to have, and so then they would say, How can you do that? And so, I do think it’s all over the map.”

Vander Plaats himself voted twice for the former president. When asked if he’s prepared to do so again, he demurs at first, saying that his focus is on the primary. But then he adds: “People have asked me that before, if it’s Trump or Biden … I think [given] the history of Trump and the administration—there’s no doubt that I would land there.”

But until then, he’s still expecting DeSantis to pull ahead. As he said on talk radio, “My decision is not against Trump. It is for the future of our country.”