Evangelicals Launch Voter Drive To Boost Conservatives

By Jennifer Siegel

Published August 30, 2006, issue of September 01, 2006.
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With Democrats threatening to take back Congress in November, Christian conservative leader James Dobson has launched a multifaceted campaign to mobilize religious voters in eight battleground states.

The effort, coordinated by Dobson’s Colorado-based group, Focus on the Family, will include church-based voter registration and education drives aimed at combating “voter apathy” and encouraging “Christians to go to the polls,” according to an e-mail sent to supporters earlier this month. In addition, several national Christian conservative groups will host a summit this month to train an estimated 1,000 election volunteers in Washington.

The mobilization of Christian conservatives comes as a number of polls have shown that Democrats — benefiting from the public’s frustration over the Iraq War and soaring gas prices, as well as from President Bush’s low approval ratings — have a strong chance of winning control of the United States House of Representatives for the first time in more than a decade, and possibly control of the Senate. At the same time, as the Forward was told by several political observers, Democrats could end up losing if, as in 2004, the Republican Party and its allies do a better job at turning out the vote.

The Republican strategy is “unified and it’s organized and it’s proven to work, and they needed that in the presidential race, but this cycle, they need it even more,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. The Democrats, he added, “lack a model — each group is focused on their goals, and those goals are fine, but [the question is], ‘Are you turning out the right voters that help everyone on the ticket?’”

To win control of Congress, the Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate. A CNN poll of registered voters conducted between August 18 and August 20 projected that the party will gain a nine-seat advantage in the House come November, with 52% of respondents saying they would vote for the Democratic candidate in their congressional district and 43% favoring the GOP.

The Gallup Poll recently issued an analysis noting that in 1998 and 2002, Republicans were down by nine points and five points in final pre-election surveys. “By virtue of Republicans’ higher turnout rates,” Gallup noted, “the Republicans still went on to win a slim majority of seats in Congress.”

According to an analysis released August 16 by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, there are 36 races for seats currently held by Republicans that are either a tossup or only leaning Republican. In contrast, the Cook Political Report did not identify any races for Democratic seats as tossups and ranked only 11 such races as leaning Democratic.

As in the highly contested 2004 campaign, advocacy groups on both sides of the political aisle are currently working to register and mobilize voters. Focus on the Family’s campaign includes partnerships with affiliates in eight battleground states — Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio,

New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — to recruit volunteers at the county and church level, who would, according to the e-mail sent to conservative activists, encourage pastors to speak about Christian citizenship, distribute voter guides, and conduct registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Focus on the Family is also co-hosting, with the political arms of several other Christian groups, a “values voters” conference in Washington late this month that will feature speeches from conservative politicians, one of whom is Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback. The event also will feature workshops with such titles as “Getting Church Voters to the Polls” and “Using the Media To Communicate Our Message.” Furthermore, Christian leaders will appear at several “Stand for the Family” rallies planned throughout the fall in key battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Tennessee.

Those efforts will fill a void left by the decline of the Christian Coalition and supplant the direct outreach to evangelical voters in key states that was conducted by the Republican Party in 2004. That effort spurred controversy when a memo was leaked during the presidential race about the Bush-Cheney campaign’s effort to collect church directories.

While Democratic allies are also conducting voter campaigns on a larger scale than in previous midterm elections, a key liberal mobilizing force in 2004 — the America Coming Together coalition — is not a factor this time around. The coalition’s main funders, financier George Soros and insurance executive Peter Lewis, have not put up any money this election cycle. The America Votes coalition, which was also founded in 2004 and coordinates the operations of more than two-dozen progressive groups that mobilize volunteers to do voter work, is mounting full campaigns this year in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as smaller efforts in Arizona, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

At the party level, the Democrats are also facing challenges. As of July 31, the Democratic National Committee had raised more than $90 million during the current election cycle and had only $11 million remaining, significantly less than the figures reported by the Republican National Committee ($147 million raised, $43 million remaining). Both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have been bright spots as they worked to outraise their Republican counterparts this election cycle.

For months, some party insiders have questioned the wisdom of DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s “50 State Strategy” — a plan to channel resources to every single state party rather than merely to those considered to be home to battleground races. While Dean and his supporter have defended the strategy as a long-term investment in broadening the party’s appeal throughout the country, congressional leaders and some party veterans have worried that the strategy is keeping some money away from competitive races.

“I think that the Democrats have to expand the map, and to do that we have to invest in places that we haven’t done before,” said Laurie Moskowitz, director of the DNC’s field effort in 2000. “At the same time,” she added, “should we be investing in Mississippi? I don’t see it, personally.”

Others on the left are hopeful that Dean’s plan to build up the Democratic presence in every state, no matter how red or blue, will help spawn a growing number of activists who are as committed as those on the right.

“The 50-state strategy is part of a broader social shift in the United States,” said Chris Bowers, a writer for the liberal Internet blog Mydd.com, in an e-mail to the Forward. “Among the so-called creative class, voter apathy and inaction simply are not cool anymore,” he wrote. “[This] is not just a political movement.… It is as much of a social movement as we see among the Christian right.”

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