SIOUX CITY -- As a former basketball player and coach, Bob Vander Plaats learned not to judge success by victories or losses alone.
"I think the only time when you're defeated is when you give up," Vander Plaats said in a recent interview at his home just north of Sioux City. "As long as you give it your best, at the end of the game, you walk off with your head held high."
That's a lesson he drew on after Iowa voters in June denied his third bid for governor.
In this year's GOP primary, Vander Plaats garnered 41 percent of the vote in a three-way Republican race won by a former four-term governor, Terry Branstad.
After briefly floating the possibility of an independent run for governor in the November general election, Vander Plaats decided to focus instead on another high-profile electoral issue.
The social conservative spearheaded a successful campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were involved a controversial 2009 same-sex marriage ruling.
Drawing widespread national attention, the justices' retention vote gave Vander Plaats a victory at the ballot box for the first time and positioned the 47-year-old for a new job leading a reorganized conservative Iowa policy and political advocacy organization. The group, called Iowa Family Leader, figures to play a prominent role in Iowa's first-in-the-nation Republican presidential caucuses in 2012.
"He may not be the king, but he may regard himself as the kingmaker," Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford told the Journal's Des Moines bureau after the Nov. 2 election. "He certainly can make the argument to prospective candidates that he can deliver."
GIVING 110 PERCENT
Vander Plaats' political resiliency in 2010 comes as no surprise to B.J. Mulder, his close friend and former teammate on the Northwestern College men's basketball team in Orange City from 1981 to 1985.
Though not necessarily as gifted athletically as some other players, nobody on the team gave more effort, Mulder recalled.
"He always came to practice and worked his butt off," Mulder recalled. "He was always a very passionate guy with whatever he did. You knew whatever he decided to do he was going to go out and give it 110 percent."
Vander Plaats showed that passion in his first job after college, as a business teacher and head high school boys' basketball coach in the west central Iowa town of Jefferson.
"He was way beyond his years as a teacher," said Mulder, who himself is an instructor at Kingsley-Pierson High School. "He was so confident in the classroom. He knew his stuff. "He was a natural leader."
At age 29, Vander Plaats landed his first administrative job, as principal of Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn High School. A year later, his experience and success there led to a dream job of sorts, a chance to be the high school principal in his hometown of Sheldon, Iowa.
In 1996, however, leaders of Opportunities Unlimited came calling. After twice turning down an offer, Vander Plaats agreed to become president and CEO of the Sioux City-based agency, which provides rehabilitative services for young adults with brain injuries or other physical disabilities.
Bob and Darla, his wife of 27 years, said Lucas, the third of their four sons, inspired their decision. Lucas, now 17, was born with a serious and rare brain disorder, which left him unable to speak or walk, and required constant care.
Their youngest son, Logan, is an eighth-grader in Hinton, Iowa. The oldest brother, Hans, a Northwestern College graduate, works for an international insurance investment firm in midtown Manhattan, and their second son, Josh, is a sophomore at Northwestern.
"I thought I would be a high school principal and superintendent for the rest of my life," Vander Plaats said. "It was God really working through Lucas and our experience with Lucas that led me to leave something I thought I would never leave."
At the urging of OU leaders, Vander Plaats left in the middle of the school year to help rescue the organization, which was teetering on the brink of insolvency. In the four years he spent there, Vander Plaats pointed out OU's assets increased by 440 percent and that the agency became nationally accredited and built a community center that has become a focal point of the Sioux City campus.
His claims of being a "turnaround" CEO were later challenged by some former OU officials and his campaign opponents, who insisted the agency was in danger of closing its doors in the early 2000s in part because Vander Plaats' fundraising fell short in his final months there.
VENTURING INTO POLITICS
During his last term as governor, Branstad in 1998 appointed Vander Plaats to the state Advisory Council for Brain Injuries. While serving on the board, Vander Plaats developed a distaste for the inner workings of government and became convinced the state needed fresh new political leadership.
One night, he told Darla he was thinking about running for governor. "She had three words for me ... 'Are you nuts?'" he recalled.
Bob and the former Darla Granstra, who first met in nursery school, started dating during their senior year at Western Christian High School in Hull, Iowa, where Bob played on the school's first basketball team to reach the state tournament. They married before their junior year at Northwestern, where Darla majored in accounting and minored in music.
In her husband, Darla said, she saw early on the personal traits and character that served him well on the campaign trail.
"He has a tremendous ability to communicate with people," she said.
In his first run for governor in 2002, the then-little-known Vander Plaats lost by just 4 percentage points in a three-way primary captured by the establishment favorite and eventual nominee Doug Gross, a former Branstad chief of staff.
Vander Plaats' outsider image and strong conservative stands on such social issues as same-sex marriage and abortion won him a loyal following.
"He was a solid conservative who said he would not waiver in his beliefs," said Sioux City businesswoman and GOP activist Linda Holub, who worked as a scheduler for Vander Plaats during his 2002 and 2006 campaigns. "To me, that was a refreshing change from other Republicans I had seen."
In the 2006 race, Vander Plaats, with his fundraising lagging behind the frontrunner, eastern Iowa Congressman Jim Nussle, dropped out before the primary to accept Nussle's invitation to be his running mate.
After Nussle lost to Democrat Chet Culver in the general election, Vander Plaats said he was ready to walk away from politics. A meeting with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Thanksgiving Day of that year convinced him otherwise.
"He said, 'Bob, if people like you walk away from politics and you don't stay involved, then your voice is removed from that arena," Vander Plaats recalled of his meeting with Huckabee.
Vander Plaats guided Huckabee's presidential campaign in Iowa, where he scored a surprise victory in the 2008 caucuses. Vander Plaats has kept close ties to Huckabee, who endorsed him for governor, as well as other potential 2010 contenders, such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
In his new job as president and CEO of the Family Leader, Vander Plaats said he will not personally take sides in the 2012 race.
PREPARING FOR THE CAUCUSES
Family Leader, a newly created umbrella group that includes the Iowa Family Policy Center, Marriage Matters and its political action committee, does plan to take a more active role in the caucuses than four years earlier, including interviewing candidates and offering one or more endorsements for the first time.
While Vander Plaats is not as popular with moderate GOP voters, that likely won't diminish his influence with presidential contenders who are expected to begin criss-crossing the state in the next few months, said Mark Lundburg, chairman of the Republican Party in Sioux County, a bastion of GOP votes. That's because social and religious conservatives traditionally dominate the caucuses, in which voters must show up on a cold winter night for meetings that last hours.
"Only those who want to be there and truly have a desire to be there will show up,'' Lundburg said. "Those who have a lot of influence on social conservatives will also have influence on who does well on caucuses."
National political reporters are keenly aware of Vander Plaats' potential sway. Since the election, he's been inundated with interviews with the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Fox News.
To devote full time to his new Family Leader job, in which he reportedly will be paid $120,000 annually, Vander Plaats is shutting down much of his Sioux City-based consulting business, MVP Leadership. Though the firm is not accepting new clients, it will continue as a conduit for his speaking appearances and sales of his book, "Light From Lucas," which chronicles lessons he and Darla have learned from raising their son.
Lucas, whose condition makes him prone to seizures, has been on the brink of death several times, his father said. He's been resuscitated on three different occasions and taken five helicopter ambulance rides.
"Through all the uncertainty Lucas has brought to our life, there's just been an almost beautiful chemistry of chaos, so to speak, that's he's brought to our life," Vander Plaats said.
Vander Plaats, the youngest of five surviving siblings, and his family has endured its share of adversity over the years. Before his birth, his parents lost a 6-year-old daughter to a rare kidney disease on Christmas Day. In kindergarten, his mother delivered a stillborn boy. He still remembers the graveside service, watching the tiny white casket lowered into the ground.
At age 16, his brother, Harlan, died in a car accident at age 21.
Vander Plaats' late father, John, lost both of his parents in an automobile accident at age 13. During World War II, the elder Vander Plaats also survived the horror of the invasion of Iwo Jima.
Vander Plaats said his father and other veterans who "sacrificed so much to give us freedom and liberty" inspired his fight to overturn the Iowa Supreme Court's unanimous 2009 decision, which declared unconstitutional a state law defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
"I saw this as a threat to our liberty," he said. "The courts were never designed to make law."
STAYING THE COURSE
During his campaign for governor, Vander Plaats energized his conservative supporters by repeatedly promising to issue an executive order blocking the court decision on his first day in office. Signing on to the justice retention campaign was a natural extension of that effort.
The campaign, which started just a few months before the election, faced steep odds. Normally, justices are retained with 70 to 80 percent of the vote. But a coalition of conservative groups convinced an overwhelming number of voters to give the boot to the three justices up for retention.
Though happy with the victory, Vander Plaats said he had mixed feelings as the results rolled in on election night because the electorate "essentially fired three people."
Vander Plaats has since called for the resignation of the four remaining justices who were part of the unanimous opinion that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage. The former high school principal likened the situation to an under-age drinking party where some got caught and punished but those in charge asked the others to "step up" and not let their peers shoulder the punishment for the entire group.
Family Leader also plans to pressure state legislators to allow a vote on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and push for reforms to the judicial appointment process.
Although his new job requires frequent travel to Des Moines and other parts of the state, Bob and Darla are reluctant to leave their home of 14 years. There, just north of Sioux City, they are reasonably close to Lucas, who lives at Children's Care Hospital and School in Sioux Falls.