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(DV) Berkowitz: Conservatives Sifting Through the Ashes of Last Tuesday's Overwhelming Electoral Defeat







Conservatives Sifting Through the Ashes of Last Tuesday's Overwhelming Electoral Defeat 
by Bill Berkowitz
November 14, 2006

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In an election-eve communication, the Reverend Donald Wildmon, the founder and chairman of the American Family Association, sent an email to his supporters urging them to get out and vote "for the sake of our children and grandchildren." The email continued, "It is not merely control of Congress that will be decided ... but also control of the federal courts who are assuming more and more influence over the core values that you and I care about most."

Many who identify as Christian conservatives may have taken warnings from Rev. Wildmon and other conservative Christian evangelical leaders to heart and showed up at the polls. But this time around, in some races religious voters played an important role in electing Democratic candidates.

According to the New York Times, exit polling found that 24 percent (up from 23 percent in 2004) of the voters identified themselves as born-again Christians. "And," the New York Times reported, "70 percent of those white evangelical and born-again Christians voted for Republican Congressional candidates nationally, also little changed from the 72 percent who voted for such candidates in 2004."

There was a shift in Ohio, though, where Ted Strickland, a Methodist Minister won the governor's race, and in Pennsylvania, where Bob Casey Jr., attracted Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants.

"It looks like the white evangelical base of the Republican Party pretty much held firm," John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, told the Times. "The white evangelicals did show up, and they did vote Republican."

"The biggest change appears to be in the states where the Democratic candidates made a real effort to attract these religious voters," Mr. Green said. "It seems to have paid off."

Sifting through the ashes

As conservative Christian evangelical leaders continue to sift through the ashes of Tuesday's overwhelming electoral defeat, some are playing the blame game, others are already in attack mode, and still others are planning for the next battle. Some leaders are blaming Republican Party corruption for the defeat, while others are again rallying their troops by continuing to hammer away at the "Beware of Nancy Pelosi and her San Francisco values" theme -- a theme that didn't resonate with voters -- as if they preferred that the atmosphere in Washington continued to be poisoned by partisan politics.

"The Republicans didn't light our fire," said Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family's vice president of government and public policy. "It took [Dr. James] Dobson a long time before he decided to convince people to turn out." Minnery said the decision by the group's political arm, Focus on the Family Action, to back Republicans, "was not over how good the Republicans were, but how bad the Democrats will be, and not just on the social issues but on national security as well."

Echoing the pre-election theme of Richard Viguerie and other prominent conservatives who before the election suggested that a defeat could be a wake-up call that might drive the GOP back to its core values, Dr. Tom Coburn (R-OK), one of the Senate's most conservative members, wrote in a post-election commentary posted at Focus in the Family's CitizenLink.com: "Although this election represents a short-term setback for Republicans, it could be an important turning point for the Republican Party."

In his commentary titled "We Need to Govern from Conscience," Sen. Coburn wrote: "Many factors contributed to these election results. The American people obviously are concerned about the conduct of the war in Iraq. Members of both parties have an obligation to work together to offer creative and constructive solutions that will help our troops accomplish their mission."

"The overriding theme of this election, however, is that voters are more interested in changing the culture in Washington than changing course in Washington, D.C. This election was not a rejection of conservative principles per se, but a rejection of corrupt, complacent and incompetent government."

In the November 8 edition of Tony Perkins' Washington Update, Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, the leading "family values" lobbying group wrote: "As Pelosi prepares to lead the House, it will be painfully obvious that the values of her hometown, San Francisco are not the values of Middle America. Make no mistake. The battle in which we are set to engage will be the biggest one we have faced for our core beliefs. The assault against abstinence, marriage, life, good judges, and cloning may be the fiercest yet. As speaker, Rep. Pelosi and the old guard of extremists will pounce on the opportunities that their new committee chairmanships will afford them."

Responding to the unseating of Ohio's Senator Mike DeWine by Sherrod Brown, Phil Burress of the Citizens for Community Values Action Political Action Committee (CCV Action PAC) said that DeWine's defeat was somewhat understandable because, outside of being pro-life, he did not support many key pro-family issues. However, there is no question that things will be "quite a bit more serious with Sherrod Brown going up there for six years."

Burress pointed out that for decades Ohioans were represented by liberal Democrats such as Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn. Brown, said Burress, is in the same vein as those two "ultra-liberal senators," and "it's really a shame that we're going to have to go through this again."

Top-shelf conservatives go down to defeat

The election saw some of the GOP's most prominent conservative leaders go down in flames: Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), one of the Senate's top GOP leaders and a strong supporter of the Bush agenda, lost in his bid for re-election to State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr.; Another leader among Christian conservatives, Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, was defeated by Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill who campaigned hard in favor of embryonic stem-cell research (which passed); Congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA), an anti-environmentalist closely tied to former House Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and scandalized Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, was defeated in his majority Republican Central Valley; Congressman J.D. Hayworth, one of the loudest anti-immigrant voices in Congress lost his seat in Arizona; Amway's Dick DeVos, who helped found the ultra-right and secretive Council for National Policy, lost his GOP-backed bid to become Governor of Michigan; and in Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a strong ally of the state's Patriot Pastors and who many blamed for the electoral shenanigans that cost Senator John Kerry the presidential election in 2004, lost his bid to become governor.

A post-election press release from Americans United for Separation of Church and State looked at a few other races where Christian conservatives fared poorly:

* Kansas: Controversial Attorney General Phill Kline, who attempted to build a church-based political machine and vowed to imprison doctors who provide abortions, lost his reelection bid to Democrat Paul Morrison, 42 percent to 58 percent. Kline had appeared at the Family Research Council's "Values Voter Summit" in September, where he promised to press a Religious Right agenda if returned to office.

* Maryland: Republican Senate candidate Michael Steele, an opponent of legal abortion and stem-cell research, was defeated by Benjamin Cardin, 54 percent to 44 percent.

* Florida: In the race for U.S. Senate, U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris (R), who based much of her candidacy on Religious Right appeals, lost badly to incumbent Senator Bill Nelson, 60 percent to 38 percent.

* Oklahoma: U.S. Rep. Ernest "Jim" Istook (R), a frequent backer of a constitutional amendment designed to weaken the separation of church and state, lost the governor's race.

* Indiana: U.S. Rep. John Hostettler, a frequent speaker at Religious Right gatherings and sponsor of a bill designed to make it harder for people to bring church-state cases into federal courts, was trounced by Democrat Brad Ellsworth, 61 percent to 39 percent.

* Kentucky: Anne Northup, a Republican who successfully used the promise of public grants through the "faith-based" initiative to woo religious voters in 2002 and 2004, lost to Democrat John Yarmuth, 51 percent to 48 percent.

Conservative social agenda (except anti-gay initiatives) take a bit hit

In addition to the passage of Missouri's stem cell research initiative, the anti-abortion movement lost in South Dakota, where a provision to impose a near-total ban on abortions failed 56 percent to 44 percent. According to Americans United, "National Religious Right groups had poured into the state, hoping to create a tide that would carry the initiative to other states."

Judie Brown of American Life League (ALL) told Agape Press, a Christian-based news service, that ALL was very disappointed that many South Dakota citizens made the "tragic decision" to vote down the Women's Health and Human Protection Act. She said religious right supporters worked hard to "combat the manipulative propaganda" from abortion proponents nationwide, but pro-lifers' efforts fell short of the goal as Planned Parenthood and other abortion supporters did all in their power to eradicate the South Dakota abortion law.

"The proponents of death poured millions of dollars into the state," Brown noted. They "decried the pro-life law as being callous toward women and did all they could to convince the electorate that abortion is a good rather than an evil."

And in California, Proposition 85, a parental notification initiative which would have changed the state constitution to impose government-mandated parental notification for young women seeking abortion care, even if it jeopardized their safety -- similar to one that failed in 2004 -- went down to defeat.

Michigan voters outlawed affirmative action in public education, employment and state contracts. Fifty-eight percent of Michigan voters approved Proposition 2, even though it was opposed by many prominent leaders in the political, business, and academic worlds -- including both the re-elected Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm and Dick DeVos, her Republican opponent.

The proposition was orchestrated by Ward Connerly, the head of the conservative philanthropy supported organization the American Civil Rights Institute, who pushed through a similar ban on affirmative action in California during the 1996 election. According to the Feminist Daily News Wire, Connerly "created an anti-affirmative action organization with the same name as the bill on Michigan's ballot -- 'the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative' -- with Jennifer Gratz. Gratz had filed suit against the University of Michigan Law School in 2003 when she was reportedly denied admission."

Election Day was also a good day for the anti-gay anti-same-sex marriage amendment crowd. While voters approved so-called "defense of marriage" amendments in Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin, Arizona became the first of more than two dozen states that have considered such measures to defeat a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Texans big money goes to waste

Mega-millionaires James Leininger, the right-wing's top funder of school vouchers in Texas, and Bob Perry, the Houston home-builder who was the major financial backer of the Swiftboaters assault on Sen. John Kerry's military record in the 2004 presidential election, spent more than $10 million during this year's election cycle. While Leininger was content to spend his dough mostly in state, the vast majority of Perry's money was channeled to a number of GOP congressional candidates through several Perry-supported front groups.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Leininger's candidates generally fared poorly and Perry's money was practically tossed down a gopher hole.

Leininger "invested more than $2.7 million in 10 of this year's races for the Legislature, giving more than $400,000 each to four candidates, in some cases providing more than 90 percent of their financial support....[and] eight of those 10 candidates lost, several to candidates who received active support from teachers and other anti-voucher groups," the newspaper reported.

"I think you could say Leininger was the biggest loser in these elections," Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin nonprofit that tracks political contributions, told the Houston Chronicle.

Perry, who gave $5 million to the Economic Freedom Fund and $4 million to two other groups, wound up supporting few victorious candidates. In addition to funding a Sopranos-like attack ad against New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, Perry's money went toward "robo calls, mailers, and TV and radio ads attacking 20 Democratic House and Senate candidates. Highlights included Montana's gay-baiting TV ad 'Brokebank Democrats' and his impish habit of putting the home phone numbers of Democratic challengers in his ads," TPMmuckraker.com's Justin Rood reported the day after the election.

According to Rood, "In 14 of the 20 races, [Perry's] GOP candidate lost. Four of his candidates won; they're still puzzling over the ballots in two."

The religious left

The whys, wherefores and participants in the election are not only being debated on the right. "Evangelicals working to bolster the Democratic Party exulted in the resounding victory [and] moved quickly to claim credit for the strong Democratic showing nationwide," Sheryl Henderson Blunt wrote in a ChristianityToday.com analysis titled "Declaring Victory: Evangelical Democrats claim credit, leading conservatives find plenty to blame."

"The Religious Right's dominance over politics and evangelicals has come to an end," said Jim Wallis, leader of the Sojourners/Call to Renewal movement and an adviser to Democrats. "I would say the Religious Right has lost, and the Secular Left has lost."

According to Blunt, Wallis' "organization distributed more than 300,000 'Voting God's Politics Issues Guides' in an effort to thwart religious conservatives and prompt voters to think more broadly about what he believes a biblical political agenda entails.

"The Democratic leadership needs to recognize how the winds are changing," Wallis told Christianity Today. "I really think there is a third force. Not a third party but a broader, deeper agenda that reflects a more biblical political agenda. [Focus on the Family founder James] Dobson can't be happy this morning, but neither can the Secular Left.

"The candidates who won are genuinely either people of faith or friendly to faith. A lot of them are pro-life, and pro-poor," he said. "The religious faith communities were deeply involved in increasing the minimum wage, and people are saying that fair wages are a biblical issue."

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State had a different view. "The Religious Right threw everything it had into this election and still came up short," Lynn said in a statement released early Wednesday. "Its campaign to politicize churches and demonize its opponents has failed."

Americans United's Lynn, author of the new book Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault On Religious Freedom, said that "Despite unprecedented efforts to mobilize churches with questionable tactics, the Religious Right failed yesterday to elect many of its favorite candidates. But I've followed this well-funded movement long enough to know that its leaders won't go away quietly. We can expect them to be angrier than ever in the upcoming months."

Rallying the troops

Despite the early conciliatory statements coming from both President Bush and Speaker-to-be Pelosi, failed presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who is president of American Values, told Agape Press that he expects an "emotional and vitriolic" debate to ensue when Democrats take control of Congress.

He pointed out that the liberal committee chairmen in the House -- Congressman Charles Rangel and others, for instance -- "have already promised that there will be subpoenas and White House officials will be dragged up to Capitol Hill to be run over the coals, et cetera."

"I think our politics, while it might be hard to believe, are going to get even nastier over these next two years." And, he warned, Americans should be prepared for a strong liberal agenda in the House.

"You just can't get around the fact that the National Democratic Party is vehemently committed to abortion on demand and is in alignment with all of the demands of the radical gay rights movement," Bauer maintained. "So, even as some of the people being elected are conservative Democrats, when they get here, they will be required -- they'll be forced -- to go along with leaders like Nancy Pelosi."

The overriding messages from election 2006 is that it was an emphatic rejection of the Bush Administration's policy in Iraq, a clear rebuke to those involved in Abramoff Affair and other culture of corruption and sex scandals, a reflection of the voter's disenchantment with one-party rule, and a recognition that culture war issues -- same-sex marriage, abortion -- in and of themselves do not have the same clout as they have had in past elections.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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