WASHINGTON – More than a year after "values voters" propelled President Bush to a second term in office, many religious conservatives say they are starting to feel undervalued, an emotion that could spell danger for congressional Republicans ahead of a contentious midterm election.
“You can cut it with a knife, that’s how upset they are,” said Richard Viguerie, a long-time member of the social conservative movement, which is largely evangelical and considered to be the base of last year's presidential victory.
Among the disappointments cited are increased spending under the Republican-controlled White House and Congress, and a lack of focus on domestic issues dear to this voting bloc. Recent Capitol Hill scandals shadowing some of the "religious right’s" brightest stars and a lost battle to save Terri Schiavo have also threatened the morale and strength of this political lobby, say leaders.
“I definitely think there are morale problems and waning enthusiasm,” said Gary Bauer, head of the Campaign for Working Families, a conservative political action committee.
“Part of it, I think is we’re in a second term (presidency) and there’s been no major progress on things that the base really cares about,” said Bauer, who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000. “There is sort of this simmering frustration out there that 'man, they want our votes on Election Day, but they are going to fight on 50 other issues before they get to our issues.'”
“Any disappointment was mitigated … by John Roberts and Justice Alito. That is a huge thing for social conservatives,” said Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The president has fulfilled no campaign promises more faithfully than only nominating strict constructionalists and non-activist judges.”
Still, Viguerie said the simmering frustration has heated up to the boiling point for many conservatives, some of whom are privately suggesting that the prospect of a Democratic win in November “ain’t all that bad," and that a divided government would scale back growth and purge the Republican Party of its non-conservatives.
In 2004, 78 percent of evangelical voters, who made up 23 percent of the electorate, voted for Bush, according to exit polling. Evangelicals identified themselves as Republicans, 48 percent — the largest numbers in recent history — compared to 23 percent who called themselves Democrats.
If the last year has angered these voters, it hasn’t stopped them from making noise, as evidenced by a recent summit of evangelical Christians and conservative Jewish activists in Washington, D.C. The summit produced a “Values’ Voters Contract with Congress,” demanding legislation that would address issues like keeping “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, banning cloning and getting a constitutional amendment enshrining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
“In terms of this bloc of voters it isn’t so much that they are complacent, it's more that they are hesitant because they haven’t seen the results that they were promised,” said William Greene, head of RightMarch.com, which participated in the March summit organized by Texas-based Vision America. RightsMarch.com also recently announced a new event with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to highlight voter anger at unchecked illegal immigration.
Scandals Rattle the Base
While conservatives say they are disappointed by the inability of Congress to achieve their agenda, others suggest that recent Capitol Hill scandals have also taken their toll.
Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, a major supporter of conservative issues, announced earlier this month that he was resigning from Congress before the November election because he thought his legal problems were interfering with the Republican agenda in the House.
The former majority leader has been indicted on money laundering and conspiracy charges relating to the election of Republican Texas state representatives in 2002. Two of his former aides, Michael Scanlon and Tony Rudy, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in a federal bribery and fraud investigation involving convicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Marvin Olasky, a professor at the University of Texas and editor of the Christian WORLD magazine who helped create the faith-based initiative in the White House, has been very critical of Reed, who reportedly took $4 million from Abramoff to launch an anti-gambling campaign that would ultimately help Abramoff’s Indian casino clients fend off a competing tribe's bid for a casino.
Olasky said that Reed has damaged the reputation of evangelical leaders and the movement. “This internal stuff — it zaps the energy” of the movement, he said. “That’s why transparency and honesty are so important.”
Reed has responded to Olasky’s criticisms on his Web site. “I was not hired (by Abramoff) to lobby. We mailed direct mail letters and aired radio ads opposing illegal casinos,” he wrote. “Had I known then what I know now, I would not have undertaken the work ... I regret any difficultly it has cause the pro-family community.”
Focus on the Family chief Dr. James Dobson flatly denies his group engaged in its own anti-gambling campaign at Reed's urging as part of his work with Abramoff. The group was using its muscle to fight illegal gambling — period, say officials there.
Paul Hetrick, spokesman for Focus on the Family, said the virility of the grassroots organization has not been affected by the story.
“We’re not going to be the least bit intimidated, restricted or constrained by any external factors,” said Hetrick.
Elsewhere, some conservatives suggest that fight in 2005 to keep Terri Schiavo alive in Florida, which drew Congressional Republicans into a failed attempt to legislate the situation, might have given them a black eye with the public. Comments from television evangelist Pat Robertson, who recently called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, also have not won widespread support.
Greene said he doesn't agree with those claims.
"I don't think it hurts the cause in terms of the issues — the support is there no matter what people like Pat Robertson says," said Greene. As for Schiavo, "the folks that really form the base of the Republican Party feel just as strongly that she shouldn’t be starved to death and that hasn't changed."
Land said he expects that values voters who are looking forward to a debate this summer over a federal marriage amendment and stem cell research will again be a strong force in the 2006 midterm election.
“I don’t see any big dip in morale,” Land said. “I think social conservatives are looking forward to 2006 and to the 2008 campaign. They feel the wind at their backs.”