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Iowa conservatives stretch their muscles

BY AARON WALKER | APRIL 24, 2015 5:00 AM

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Republican presidential hopefuls have flocked to faith-based events in Iowa such as the Good Friday Prayer Breakfast, Homeschool Iowa Day, and Saturday’s Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Spring Kickoff, vying to harness the conservative sector of the party.

During the 2012 election cycle, 57 percent of Iowa’s caucus goers identified as evangelical or born-again Christians, according to a CNN entrance poll. That makes the Republican-leaning subset a key demographic for GOP hopefuls.

And more events that cater to social conservatives in Iowa may be because that sector of the Republican Party may feel their values are more endangered than in years past.

“I think among American evangelicals there is a feeling of being threatened right now,” said Cara Burnidge, an assistant professor of religion and politics at the University of Northern Iowa. “The public debate is about whether or not that feeling of being threatened is supported by legislation and by candidates.”

Although social issues may be make-or-break topics for social conservatives, Burnidge and Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition President Steve Scheffler said the evangelical population cares about a wide range of topics.

At this Saturday’s event, he said, he expects candidates to address a range of issues including education, taxes, and national security.

Still, a powerful force in the movement is Bob Vander Plaats, the CEO of the Family Leader, a Christian conservative organization. In 2011, The Hill called Vander Plaats’ one of the top 10 most-coveted endorsements for Republicans running for president.

He is one of many Iowa conservative heavyweights hosting events across the state with 2016 GOP hopefuls to promote Christian principles in governance.

“2016 is a different environment than ’08 and 2012,” Vander Plaats said. “At this point, there needs to be level and fair playing field while we discern which candidate will be the best candidate to champion pro-family leadership for country.”

Those family values create a social platform based on pro-life, anti-gay marriage, and abstinence-based student education stances.

Still, experts agree Vander Plaats’ sway remains significant. Miranda Blue, a senior researcher at People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, said he has great influence in Iowa’s social-conservative realm.

“You can see from the vast majority of Republican candidates are eager to be seen with him and eager to attend his events, that his endorsement and support means a lot in the race,” Blue said.  “I think that his influence in the presidential race in Iowa speaks to where the Republican Party is ideologically at.”

Those moral issues have triggered Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to introduce a bill this week that, if passed, would prevent federal courts from overturning state bans.

“For too long, federal courts have overstepped their constitutionally limited duty to interpret the Constitution,” King said in a release. “Rather, federal courts have prevented the Constitution to make law and create constitutional rights to things such as privacy, birth control, and abortion.”

King is also a major player when it comes to GOP endorsements. The Des Moines Register ranked him No. 5 on its list of most wanted Republicans for 2016.

For many other socially conservative donors in Iowa, centrist ideology won’t grab their attention or their support.

“I think if we nominate a moderate that is Hillary-like, we’ll get steamrolled,” Vander Plaats said. “It won’t even be close.”


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