Bob Vander Plaats’ endorsement of Rick Santorum has produced a backlash among conservatives in Iowa, some of whom are accusing the FAMiLY LEADER president of engaging in “pay for play” schemes and selling his coveted support to the highest bidder. Earlier this week, Santorum admitted that Vander Plaats approached the campaign with an indirect solicitation of money to help promote his support, but now other sources familiar with the talks between Vander Plaats and GOP candidates are characterizing the tactics as “corrupt.”
“Clearly the endorsement was for sale — without a doubt,” one source told ABC News’ Shushannah Walshe and Michael Falcone, stressing that Vander Plaats had tried to receive money for his support in past election cycles:
Though Santorum did not specify the dollar amount he and Vander Plaats discussed, multiple sources said he was soliciting as much as $1 million from Santorum and other candidates.
In an interview with the Des Moines Register this week, Vander Plaats said that it was his “ethical responsibility” to essentially put some money where his mouth is. “You can’t say, ‘We endorsed you. Now see you later,’” Vander Plaats told the Iowa newspaper. “That’s not going to do a lot in the long run.” But one long-time Iowa conservative activist told ABC News, “There is no way he could buy enough ad space in Iowa for a million dollars — couldn’t buy that much advertising in a week and a half in Iowa.”
ABC News has learned that Vander Plaats tried to solicit money for his endorsement during the last presidential cycle too. A former staffer for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid who is currently unaffiliated with a campaign said Vander Plaats came to them seeking money for his backing if he supported the former Massachusetts governor. “He wanted to be paid,” the former staffer said. “He was clearly looking for a paycheck. There was a conversation about him getting a title, but being a paid consultant was much more important.”
This seems to also raise speculation about who exactly Vander Plaats actually wanted to endorse. Last month, he indicated that he had narrowed the endorsement down to four candidates: Santorum, Bachmann, Perry, and Newt Gingrich. During the weeks after that announcement, The FAMiLY LEADER’s attention seemed to be focused entirely on raising support for Gingrich, saying “he’s had a life transformation,” accepting that he “asked God’s forgiveness” for his infidelities, and accepting his affirming letter of the group’s “marriage pledge.”
While Santorum may be correct that conservatives like Vander Plaats were just trying to unite social conservatives, it may be that Vander Plaats was building support for Gingrich, the thrice-married former speaker whose complicated marital past raised concerns for certain Evangelical leaders. After all, Gingrich donated $350,000 last year to his campaign against the Iowa Supreme Court Justices who ruled in favor of marriage equality, which is quite the “pay for play.” Santorum, Bachmann, and Perry have the social conservative credentials Vander Plaats would want to endorse without the baggage of Gingrich’s infidelities, but if they had dropped out, he could have endorsed Gingrich without it looking like blatant quid pro quo.
Progress Iowa has launched a petition calling on the Federal Elections Commission to investigate The FAMiLY LEADER for potential illegal campaign coordination. According to Erin Seidler, a spokesperson for the group:
Bob Vander Plaats’ solicitation of funds to promote his endorsement of Rick Santorum raises serious questions about further coordination between a political campaign and an outside group. Considering the possibility of illegal activity so close to Caucus Day, you can take Bob’s word there is no coordination or you can join us in telling the FEC to investigate if any illegal coordination is taking place.