Vander Plaats graduated from Western Christian High School in Hull, Iowa. He later attended Northwestern College in Orange City with a basketball scholarship, graduating and becoming a teacher and coach in Boone and Jefferson high schools. He was principal at Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn High School and later Sheldon High School. Later he earned masters and specialist degrees in the area of Educational Leadership from Drake University. Vander Plaats served as president of Opportunities Unlimited before moving on in the same role with MVP Leadership, Inc.
In 2002, Vander Plaats unsuccessfully ran for the Iowa GOP gubernatorial nomination, losing to Doug Gross.
Vander Plaats was a candidate for the 2006 Iowa Republican gubernatorial nomination, competing against Iowa Congressman Jim Nussle. As the race progressed, he withdrew his candidacy for governor in favor of being Nussle's running mate in the general election. Calls by GOP party higher-ups for Vander Plaats to get out of the race were reportedly due to Vander Plaats reporting only $459,000 cash on hand compared to Nussle's $2,500,000. The Republican ticket of Nussle/Vander Plaats lost the election to the Democratic ticket of Culver/Judge.
On January 26, 2009, Vander Plaats announced the formation of a 2010 gubernatorial campaign committee with state Representative Jodi Tymeson as chair and former state Auditor Dick Johnson as co-chair of the committee.
In the Iowa gubernatorial election of 2010, incumbent Democratic Governor Chet Culver ran for re-election. The Republican candidates were Vander Plaats, state representative Rod Roberts, and former governor Terry Branstad.
Vander Plaats ran on his conservative credentials in the primary. One of his main focuses – promoting business expansion in Iowa – included reducing "property taxes to fuel business expansion and job opportunities," making Iowa a “leading alternative energy producer and innovator,” applying a “loser-pay system” of tort reform, and marketing Iowa “as a Right to Work state." He supported having representatives from “public school, home school and private school on the Iowa Board of Education.” He also pledged to sign an executive order designed to stop county clerks from handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This last issue drew some controversy, as both of his primary opponents maintained that the governor did not have that authority, as did most legal scholars.
In the Republican primary on June 8, 2010, Vander Plaats lost to Branstad, receiving 40 percent of the vote compared to 50 percent for Branstad. Roberts was third with 9 percent of the vote.
Vander Plaats served as the Iowa state chair of Republican Presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's 2008 failed presidential campaign. On many occasions, Huckabee called Vander Plaats the "next Governor of Iowa," suggesting that Vander Plaats would run for Governor again in 2010.
In 2010, Vander Plaats successfully led the campaign against the retention of three members of the Iowa Supreme Court who had voted to overturn Iowa's Defense of Marriage Act in Varnum v. Brien.
In November 2010, Vander Platts became president and chief executive officer of an umbrella group called The Family Leader, a group that includes the Iowa Family Policy Center, Marriage Matters, and a political action committee. Through the new group, the socially conservative organizations planned to play a more influential role in the 2012 Iowa caucus campaigns than in 2007 and 2008, including offering an endorsement for the first time.
In December 2011, Vander Plaats endorsed Rick Santorum for president. ABC News reported that Vander Plaats had solicited up to a million dollars from Santorum and other candidates in exchange for his endorsement, that he and Santorum had discussed the subject of money when negotiating the endorsement, and that he had tried to get Michele Bachmann of Minnesota to drop out of the race. The Family Leader denied the report.
In February 2007 Vander Plaats released his first book, Light from Lucas. This story of his third son was published by Tyndale House Publishers.
He and his wife Darla have four sons: Hans, Lucas, Josh, and Logan.