Reports of Evangelicals’ Political Demise Greatly Exaggerated
The ruling class in both political parties keeps waiting for it to happen and reporting it has happened, but it hasn’t happened yet.
In fact, the 2014 election results confirm the exact opposite is true — reports of evangelicals’ political demise have been greatly exaggerated. Furthermore, given how increasingly Balkanized we are becoming as a culture, a case could certainly be made that evangelicals are poised to have more influence in the political system than ever before. As politicians, particularly Democrats, continue to appeal to voters based on identity (i.e. gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.) and not ideology, evangelicals will remain among the largest ideologically driven groups of voters.
The results of the last two elections confirm this.
As I document in my latest book Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again, the overwhelming reason Mitt Romney lost in 2012 was his failure to turn out the base. Mr. Romney won independents in key battleground states Colorado, Ohio, and Virginia, and nearly tied for them in Florida. All tremendous improvements over John McCain’s poor showing with independents in each of those states back in 2008. Nevertheless, Mr. Romney still lost all those states because 2.5 million fewer evangelicals voted in 2012 compared to 2008, evangelical turnout in Virginia was down 7 percent in 2012, and President Obama improved his evangelical turnout in Ohio by 8 percent. At least 6 million evangelicals actually voted for Mr. Obama’s re-election in 2012.
But fast forward two years and the tables have turned. Despite clear and present attempts from the Republican Party establishment to divorce itself from its most important base, Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics notes that Republicans received more votes from evangelicals in 2014 than Democrats received from all non-whites nationwide combined.
Furthermore, a writer for The Atlantic used some demographic data to predict a month before the election a decline of evangelical voters in the South would cost Republicans a chance to take the U.S. Senate. The exact opposite happened.
In Arkansas where challenger Tom Cotton routed Democrat incumbent Mark Pryor, 51 percent of the electorate were evangelicals. Almost 40 percent of the electorate in Georgia were evangelicals, and only 12 percent of them voted for Democrat Michelle Nunn. In Kentucky, 52 percent of the electorate were evangelicals, and Republican Mitch McConnell won that group by 38 points. A third of the electorate in Louisiana were evangelicals, and only 14 percent of them voted for Democrat incumbent Mary Landrieu, who is probably on her way to a run-off loss. Finally, Thom Tillis pulled off the upset over Kay Hagan in North Carolina because he received a whopping 78 percent of the evangelical vote, which made up 40 percent of the electorate there.
By the way, how did Republican incumbent Pat Roberts defy weeks of shaky polling to cruise to an 11-point win in Kansas? Again, it was courtesy of evangelicals, who made up 37 percent percent of the electorate and Mr. Roberts received 72 percent of their support.
Although establishment Republican politicians were the beneficiaries of high evangelical turnout in 2014, that doesn’t necessarily mean an evangelical political revival is good news for the Republican Party establishment overall.
Evangelical leaders are altering the way they mobilize their people to get out of the pews and get to the polls, and it’s a far cry from the GOP cheerleaders strategy of yesteryear. Look at how prominent evangelical organizer David Lane operates as one example. I’ve attended a few of Mr. Lane’s events and spoken with him at length. He’s hardly a GOP cheerleader. Instead, Mr. Lane’s “Pastors and Pews” events often feature speakers who have little regard for the GOP establishment, and the feeling is mutual. The point is using the political process to have a spiritual impact on America, not becoming shills for the political process itself. Especially at a time when evangelicals believe religious liberty is the most threatened its ever been in America.
Republicans benefited this year from Mr. Lane’s and others’ similar efforts because their party platform is in line with a Christian worldview, and unlike in 2012 they didn’t globally abandon their base as Mr. Romney so often did (i.e. running pro-abortion television ads down the stretch in swing states, dismissing the Chick-fil-A campaign, etc.). But when the GOP establishment did abandon their base, their base made them pay.
Like in California District 52, for example, where influential San Diego pastor Jim Garlow helped organize a “defensive tactical vote” campaign to take out Republican congressional nominee Carl DeMaio, for whom House Speaker John Boehner maxed out as a donor.
Mr. DeMaio declared himself a “proud gay American” in a television ad, and was also a strong proponent of killing preborn children. Fearful that Mr. DeMaio would become a poster child of the GOP establishment, Mr. Garlow helped coordinate a campaign to not vote for him since the GOP was assured of keeping its House majority as it is. Not to mention in that district Mr. Garlow assumed beating a Democrat in two years was easier than beating Mr. DeMaio in a primary. To evangelicals like Mr. Garlow, there’s no point in voting Republican when the Republican doesn’t represent the party platform you believe in.
Despite the national Republican wave, Mr. DeMaio lost by two points. Proving evangelicals don’t always need to have mass numbers to have mass influence.
Mr. Garlow’s successful insurgency also shows evangelicals haven’t ignored the GOP establishment’s many infidelities in recent years, and they may finally be finished with being used and taken for granted. They’ve seen the gains their ideological rivals on the Left have made by taking a more confrontational posture with the system, and evangelicals are ready to go and do likewise.
And it just so happens that evangelicals are reasserting themselves just as the 2016 GOP presidential primary is getting underway. Is that coincidence or providence?
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