Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) on Monday became the latest Democratic presidential contenders to publicly decline an invitation to attend a conservative Christian gathering to which seven Democratic presidential candidates were invited.
The candidates joined former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who’d earlier declined the invitation. NBC News reported Buttigieg and Booker’s declinations Monday, and O’Rourke’s campaign told NPR Friday that he wouldn’t attend.
Only former Vice President Joe Biden, the seventh person invited, has not said yet whether he will or won’t attend the gathering, which its host has said would entail “an adult conversation as it relates to Faith and Leadership” for the candidates.
A spokesperson for Warren’s campaign told TPM that “we’ve declined” the invitation from Iowa conservative kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats (pictured above), the president of The Family Leader, to attend the Family Leadership Summit in July in Iowa.
A spokesperson for Sanders’ campaign told TPM: “We will not be attending.”
A spokesperson for Harris’ campaign said simply “no.”
“It’s very unfortunate,” Drew Zahn of The Family Leader told TPM in a phone call. “All of these candidates are seeking to lead all of America, and here is an opportunity, especially in the first-in-the-nation-state of Iowa, to sit down and talk in a respectful environment to a constituency that they rarely have the opportunity to speak to. It’s unfortunate that they won’t take this opportunity.”
Vander Plaats is known for his successful effort to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010 after the court ruled in favor legalizing gay marriage. The Family Leader is staunchly anti-abortion.
Vander Plaats served as a national co-chair of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) presidential bid in 2016. He endorsed Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 in Iowa’s Republican caucuses, as The New York Times noted when he backed Cruz.
The summit made headlines in 2015 after then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said in an interview at the event, referring to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
The Family Leader, which says its mission is to “Strengthen families, by inspiring Christ-like leadership in the home, the church, and the government,” told NPR that this was the first year it was inviting Democratic presidential contenders to address the summit.
Vander Plaats told NBC News after O’Rourke, Buttigieg and Booker declined his invitation: “The message it sends is they want to run for president for a piece of America, not for all of America.”
O’Rourke was first to decline Vander Plaats’ invitation. In a statement to NPR Friday, a spokesperson for his campaign said: “Vander Plaats and the Family Leader have unapologetically provided a forum for dangerous anti-LGBTQ hate speech on numerous occasions … They are the antithesis of the unifying, inclusive, welcoming atmosphere that our campaign prides itself on in Iowa and across the country. We will not be participating in this forum.”
While a spokesperson for Buttigieg initially told NPR that the candidate would consider attending, the campaign told NBC News Monday: “We keep an open mind to the invitations that we receive … We will be declining this invitation.”
Booker tweeted his declination Monday:
I welcome any opportunity to talk about how faith guides me, but I cannot—in good conscience—attend an event put on by an organization that preaches bigotry and sows hate against the LGBTQ community. That's why I am declining an invitation to the Family Leader's July 12 summit.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) April 29, 2019
Biden’s campaign didn’t respond to TPM’s request for comment on whether he would attend the summit.
This post has been updated.