Evangelicals' Lock on the GOP Cracks

During this election cycle, Republicans sidled up to Ronald Reagan's legacy to demonstrate their true conservative credentials. But we all know that Reagan himself could not survive as a presidential candidate in the Republican Party in this, the twenty-first century.

Well, why is that? Is it because he raised taxes, created a new cabinet-level department (the Department of Veterans Affairs), oversaw exploding national deficits, increased the number of federal employees by over 60,000, did not actively speak against gay rights and famously worked with Democrats like Tip O'Neil to accomplish actual legislation (such as drastically increasing entitlements under Social Security)?

No. Of course not. It's because, by most accounts, Reagan was a genuinely warm human being. And that's not what Republicans want this year. It's not the politics. It's the approach. And today's Republicans want someone who will defeat the enemy, more than they want to achieve their legislative objectives. The Republican Party of today, like Itchy and Scratchy attest to in their ear worm theme song, want to "fight and fight and fight and fight and fight." This impulse is so strong among Republicans that it now trumps one of their formerly favorite prerequisites: "family values" -- that is, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-feminist and, well, anti- all things hippie.

You may recall that the so-called "Moral Majority" began influencing Republican politics in the late 1970s by, well, evangelizing a conservative moral philosophy. By the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the broader Christian Conservative/Born-Again Christian/Evangelical Christian movement had solidified "family values" into a full-blown political litmus test right up there with gun control and almost as effective as Grover Norquist's insistence that GOP candidates pledge never to raise taxes. No abortion, no gay rights. Fight the idea of evolution. Support putting religion in our schools. The list goes on.

Forget the investment bankers and the neocons. Karl Rove and Bush 43 unleashed on the nation a power of, well, almost biblical proportions. And one that they rode to unparalleled electoral success. It seems that the "Christian Right's" influence has steadily grown since the Reagan-era. No Republican candidate who has serious aspirations for national office can ignore their strength.

But in all the buzz about Newt Gingrich's meteoric rise to the top echelon of the Republican field, something unprecedented and wholly unexpected happened: The Christian right cracked.

After Mitt Romney appeared to have won the Iowa caucuses (subsequently corrected by the GOP well after the fact), the self-appointed leaders of the Christian Right desperately wanted to unify behind one candidate, so the social conservative vote would not be split. Such a split, they feared, would enable Mitt Romney to walk away with the nomination.

And so, on a weekend event culminating on Saturday January 14th, Republican evangelicals got together near Bleiblerville, Texas, at the ranch of H. Paul Pressler, a Houston attorney and retired judge. The goal was simple: agree on one socially conservative candidate that everyone would put their weight behind so Mitt Romney could be stopped. Finding one candidate to support, they hoped, would mean that that candidate could raise the funds necessary to compete effectively, and whose short-term electoral success would then engender more success in subsequent bouts. Who were these self-appointed Evangelical insiders? Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president Rev. Samuel Rodriguez and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, to name a few.

It took three ballots. And on that third try, they got their man, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who emerged victorious with 84 out of 114 votes cast, defeating the former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Texas Governor Rick Perry having been eliminated in a previous round).

Let's look at the strength of the Christian social-conservative base in the first two primaries states after the Evangelicals anointed Santorum. In South Carolina, the very first primary in the South, 65% of those voting in the Republican primary in 2012 self-identified as either Born-Again or Evangelical Christians (up from 60% in 2008). And in Florida, the first large-state primary this election cycle, 47% so self-identified (39% in 2008). That's fertile ground for these Christian political leaders to sow their brand of politics. And Rick Santorum is a Catholic who vehemently opposes abortion and gay rights. He seems to be accepted as one of their own by the Evangelical Right. He certainly was in Iowa.

It's hard to look at the results of South Carolina and Florida and not conclude the Christian Right movement itself lost. At first blush it certainly appeared that the Evangelicals/Born-Agains got their wish: Romney was stopped cold in South Carolina. But their man Santorum lost (and lost big) to Gingrich in South Carolina (by 23 points). And he lost by an even greater margin (a full 33 points) to Romney in Florida.

In fact, exit polls in South Carolina and Florida show that Santorum lost to Gingrich and Romney in almost every category (including race, gender, education) and by more than 2-to-1 among those identifying themselves as either Born-Again or Evangelical Christians (21% to 44% in SC; 18% to 37% in FL) and even bigger among Catholics (15% to 37% in SC; 10% to 56% in FL).

Let's reflect upon that. The Catholic candidate that was endorsed by the Evangelical elites as a "values firewall" bombed in states with sizable Evangelical/Born-Again populations. If not Santorum, then who picked up all of those evangelical votes? Why Mitt Romney, of course. He improved among Evangelicals/Born-Agains from 22% in South Carolina (one point higher than Santorum!) to 38% in Florida (barely eking out Gingrich's 37%). That's right; Gingrich and Romney split the Evangelical/Born-Again vote in Florida.

In short, the Evangelicals wanted to show their modern social conservative litmus test was still operative. What they got instead in Newt Gingrich was something rather more Old Testament. Forget the social conservative line, the Republican voters in South Carolina wanted red meat, someone who could fight -- not necessarily for exactly what they believe in, but fight against Obama and all that they say (however inaccurately) the Democrats stand for. And in Florida, almost a third of Republican voters still enjoy their meat rare. Gingrich is still very much alive with 32% of the vote.

What's the real moral of South Carolina and Florida? The full-attack, take-no-prisoners, Rush-Limbaugh wing of the Republican Party can take the Evangelical and social conservative wing any day. With its hands tied behind its back.

For the rest of us, the good news is that the so-called values candidates may finally have peaked. Or at least the Christian Right elite's ability to select the value candidate has vanished. But the bad news is that Itchy and Scratchy may be here for the foreseeable future.