Republicans Falter in Bid to Mobilize Christian Conservatives

Date: 2006-10-19
Source: bloomberg.com

By William Roberts

Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- If Republicans lose control of the U.S. Congress, the Supreme Court will be packed with abortion- backing liberals, tax dollars will pay for research on cloning to create "little human beings" for organ farming, and elementary- school teachers will be forced to promote homosexuality to their students.

That's the view and vision of James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, a nationwide, politically active evangelical group allied with the Republican Party. The moral future of America is at stake and "staying home" isn't an option, Dobson told 2,400 followers at an Oct. 16 get-out-the-vote rally at the Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville. "Folks, we cannot afford to do that."

A big turnout among evangelical Christians helped White House adviser Karl Rove secure President George W. Bush's re- election and the Republicans' increased congressional majority in 2004. The effort is just as big this year. The response may not be.

John Green, a political scientist who studies the role of religion in politics, says evangelical Christians are disappointed by the Republican Congress's failure to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages or advance a federal ban on abortion. And, like other voters, they aren't happy about the continuing violence in Iraq and the scandal over ex-Representative Mark Foley's sexually explicit messages to former congressional pages.

Can't Win

"The Republicans probably can't win without good turnout from this group," said Green, senior visiting fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington and director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.

Dobson, 70, and his Colorado Springs, Colorado-based organization are key figures in the Republican efforts to assure a big evangelical turnout on Nov. 7.

"Rove certainly sees Dobson as the most important and politically influential evangelical leader," said Ryan Sager, author of "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals and the Battle to Control the Republican Party." "Dobson is someone who the White House works with extremely closely and constantly."

Almost Canceled

His difficulties mirror the party's. The Nashville rally was almost canceled after organizers failed to sell the 6,000 tickets they needed to fill the city's Municipal Auditorium, forcing them to hold the event in the Two Rivers Church. Similar events in recent weeks in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Pittsburgh also drew smaller-than-anticipated crowds.

"Republicans take advantage of conservative Christian voters," said Lewis Lampley, 60, who attended the rally in Nashville. "They take our votes for granted."

A new book by David Kuo, the former deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the White House from 2002 to 2003, may add to the discontent. The book, "Tempting Faith," alleges the White House exploited the faith- based effort for political purposes and that evangelical leaders including Dobson were dubbed "the nuts" by officials in Rove's office.

`Goofy'

They "were dismissed behind their backs and described as `ridiculous,' `out of control,' and just plain `goofy,"' Kuo wrote.

At a rally in St. Paul this month, Dobson acknowledged his flock's discontent. "I'm going to speak to you honestly, I am and have been very irritated with the Republican Party," he said.

Still, he's doing his best to motivate his followers. When it comes to the top issue facing Christian voters today, winning the war against "Islamic fundamentalists," Bush and his party "get it," Dobson said.

His group is also putting its weight behind Republican candidates, such as Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who support its positions on social issues. Dobson is supporting a statewide ballot initiative to ban gay marriage in Tennessee, where Republican Mayor Bob Corker of Chattanooga is locked in a tight race with Democratic Representative Harold Ford Jr. for an open Senate seat.

Jerry Sutton, the senior pastor at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, said he believed Dobson's effort would pay off. "There is a concerted effort to say conservative voters are going to stay home this year because they are disgusted with Mark Foley," Sutton, 54, said. "It's not going to work. Our congregation, we did voter registrations twice. They are very, very motivated to vote."

`The Right Values'

Eric Crafton, 39, a Nashville city councilman who attended Dobson's rally, said the Foley scandal "is going to inspire people to vote even more, to vote for candidates who are going to stand up for the right values."

Dobson is reaching out to his constituents through his daily radio show, which is syndicated nationwide and reaches an estimated 3.5 million listeners each week. In addition to Pennsylvania, his group is also organizing turnout drives in Minnesota, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey and Montana.

In Minnesota, Dobson is trying to engineer a win for Michele Bachmann, a candidate for the House seat being vacated by Republican Mark Kennedy, who is running for the Senate. Bachmann, a Republican who opposes abortion and supported a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriages while in the Minnesota Senate, said the scandals in Washington and Bush's low approval rating mean she faces a tight race in the socially conservative northern suburbs of Minneapolis.

Low Ebb

"Republicans are at a low ebb tide this year, so it's not a given the Republicans would hold this seat," Bachmann, 50, said in an interview.

Focus on the Family operatives plan to distribute 250,000 voter guides in Minnesota churches to reach social conservatives, said Tom Prichard, 47, president of the Minnesota Family Council, a local affiliate of Dobson's group. "It's really a volatile election situation," Prichard said.

While Christian conservatives are worried turnout will be lower than in previous years, they dismiss predictions of a Republican rout, Tom Minnery, senior vice president for public policy at Focus on the Family, said in a telephone interview.

"We just hope and pray for the best," Minnery, 58, said. "Obviously it is going to be lower than a presidential year. Whether it is going to be a disaster that the Democrats and the media are predicting, I doubt that."

To contact the reporter on this story: William Roberts in Nashville, Tennessee wroberts@bloomberg.net

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