The Family Leader's Thanksgiving forum will go on despite RNC threats to punish candidates

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Family Leader President and CEO Bob Vander Plaats said his organization will move forward with a planned Thanksgiving forum later this month, even as the Republican National Committee threatens to sanction presidential candidates who attend.

The event, which the Christian conservative organization also hosted in the leadup to the 2012 and 2016 Republican caucuses, is set to feature presidential candidates sitting around a table to engage in conversation with Vander Plaats.

"These forums are not debates," Vander Plaats told the Des Moines Register. "This is more talking about who they are, what makes them tick, their worldview, and pretty much why they believe what they believe and why they believe they're prepared for such a time as this to lead.”

Bob Vander Plaats speak during the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines, Friday, July 14, 2023.
Bob Vander Plaats speak during the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines, Friday, July 14, 2023.

But the RNC Counsel's Office disagreed, sending a letter to presidential campaigns at the end of October saying their appearance at the Family Leader event would violate a pledge they made to not participate in any debate that isn't RNC-sanctioned. The letter was first reported by Real Clear Politics.

"It has come to the attention of the RNC Counsel's Office that several Republican presidential candidates have been invited to participate in an open-press event in Iowa in November at which they would 'gather around the table to have a moderated, friendly, and open discussion about the issues,'" the letter said. "In other words, a debate."

The RNC said any candidate who participates will be "disqualified from taking part in any future RNC-sanctioned presidential primary debates."

The RNC's third debate wrapped up in Miami Nov. 8, and a fourth is scheduled for Dec. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Iowa often has hosted a debate ahead of its first-in-the-nation caucuses, though the RNC has not said whether that will be the case again this cycle.

"The Family Leader is not a Republican subsidiary," Vander Plaats said. "We don't go by the RNC's rules. We hold our own things and then it's up to the candidates to determine if they want to show up or not."

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The event is not a full cattle call open to all of the candidates, like some of the Family Leader's past events.

Vander Plaats said three candidates previously confirmed they would attend the Thanksgiving forum: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

A spokesperson for Ramaswamy would not say whether the candidate still plans to attend. And a representative for DeSantis did not provide a comment.

Vander Plaats noted that the event is the last major event scheduled so far in Iowa ahead of the caucuses, and he said the format provides a unique perspective of the candidates right as Iowans are getting serious about making their decisions. He said he doesn't currently have plans to alter the event's format.

"We don't want a stump speech. Everybody's heard the stump speech before," he said. Past events have "been very revealing. And that's why I think the candidates who have participated in the past have believed they've been very important to the process.”

Former U.S. senator and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum tweeted his support for the event.

"Leave it to the RNC to thwart the one forum that shows candidates in the best possible light," he said. "Everyone sits at a table in a relaxed setting. No shots, just stories of faith, family & country. It’s a chance to see the authentic candidate."

Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Bob Vander Plaats rebuffs RNC, says caucus Thanksgiving forum is on