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Could Rod Roberts save Iowa GOP from itself?
In attacking former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, and vowing not to support him if he wins his party’s nomination for a fifth term this June, the Iowa Family Policy Center (IFPC) could be opening the door for another candidate – state Rep. Rod Roberts, R-Carroll.
The IFPC’s political arm, the Iowa Family Political Action Committee, Tuesday endorsed Republican Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats for governor. Based on the Christian conservative mission of IFPC, that’s to be expected.
But it’s what came next in the PAC’s statement that perplexes Republicans looking at the bigger picture – a fall election in which it will take a reasonably unified GOP able to attract independents and conservative Democrats to unseat Democratic Gov. Chet Culver.
The group roundly rejected Vander Plaats’ main rival for the nomination, Terry Branstad, and promised to sit out the fall campaign if he is the party’s nominee.
The politically muscular Iowa Family PAC also turned their attention to Roberts, saying flatly that the ordained evangelical pastor isn’t tough enough to be one of God’s political warriors at the gubernatorial level.
“Roberts can be counted on to interject godly counsel and to cast principled votes. He has not, however, demonstrated the bold resolve and drive necessary to successfully confront those in leadership positions who actively promote wrong-doing in Iowa,” The Iowa Family PAC said in its statement.
For his part, Roberts said he has heard this before, a sneering at the affable, approachable political personality that’s gotten him re-elected in a traditionally Democratic district since 2000. In fact, Roberts has never had a whisper of a serious challenge for the seat after his election in a county with deep Democratic traditions and growing independent political orientation.
Roberts said some Republicans just want their candidates to be “mean” and “mad,” to spit-scream at opponents and ascribe all manner of evil motives to their politics.
But that’s not Rod Roberts.
The Iowa Family PAC acknowledged that Roberts is a genuine conservative with a record of opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. But his campaign isn’t calling out others with different views, or the same views with alternative legislative strategies, as ideological heretics deserving of flames at the political stake.
Meanwhile, the Christian conservatives with the Iowa Family PAC have possibly set the stage for a third-party gubernatorial bid for Vander Plaats should Branstad win the GOP nomination. And for his part, Vander Plaats has never publicly stated that an independent run is out of the question.
“Obviously we have this almost schism-like feature in the Republican Party that is now out in the open,” Roberts said.
Which could create an opportunity for Roberts.
Partly because he is an ordained evangelical pastor with a conservative voting record, Roberts has the support of many rank-and-file members of conservative groups such as the Iowa Family Policy Center.
At the same time, because he’s capable of talking about his opposition to gay marriage or President Barack Obama’s policies without frothing at the mouth, Roberts believes he can do something remarkable in modern politics: appeal to people who disagree with him on a lot of matters but respect him personally.
Roberts could hold die-hard social conservatives in a way it’s becoming increasingly clear Branstad may not while also reaching the broader voting public.
Iowa State University professor and veteran political commentator Steffen Schmidt says most observers see the GOP primary as a two-man show featuring Branstad and Vander Plaats. But Roberts is well-positioned to be a surprise, bridge candidate, one who pulls both evangelicals and business-oriented Republicans, he said.
“He is a minister and an evangelical but he doesn’t push that on everyone else,” Schmidt said.
He added, “Roberts may actually have a connection to evangelicals that is not public but more under the radar.”
Schmidt said many independents appear poised to break for the GOP primary which would boost the political fortunes of Branstad. He would be a nostalgic choice for many and a Republican that more moderate, non-ideological voters would find attractive, he said. If significant independents wash into the GOP primary Branstad is the clear winner, Schmidt said.
If that doesn’t happen, though, there’s room for Roberts.
“He could very well sneak up and pull off a surprise,” Schmidt said.
Roberts will benefit from increasing his profile, if he can raise the money to get his message more public, he said.
“I like Roberts,” Schmidt said. “He’s a neat guy. He’s a serious guy. He’s a high-quality candidate.”