Some Evangelicals in the Republican Party Are Discouraged Due to Lack Of a Standard-Bearer

Gino Geraci, founding pastor of the Calvary South Denver church in Littleton, Colo., is among evangelicals who have newfound doubts about the Republican Party. (Matthew Staver/For The Washington Post)
Gino Geraci, founding pastor of the Calvary South Denver church in Littleton, Colo., is among evangelicals who have newfound doubts about the Republican Party. (Matthew Staver/For The Washington Post)

Perched on the edge of his chair in a study overflowing with books, Pastor Gino Geraci reels off the Republicans he no longer believes in. His friend Mike Huckabee is an “odd bird” who couldn’t win a general election. Sarah Palin doesn’t inspire him with her “cliched responses to difficult questions.” Rand Paul is “fascinating but frustrating.”

Of all the Republicans weighing a bid for president in 2016, the only one who puts a smile on Geraci’s face is doctor-turned-conservative-media-darling Ben Carson. And yet, Geraci concedes, Carson is “not in the mainstream” and has little chance of ever being elected.

The assessment from Geraci, the founding pastor of Calvary South Denver, a sprawling evangelical church with several thousand congregants, reflects a broader sense of despair among white evangelicals about the Republican Party many once considered their comfortable home.

Many social conservatives say they feel politically isolated as the country seems to be hurtling to the left, with marijuana now legal in Colorado and gay marriage gaining ground across the nation. They feel out of place in a GOP increasingly dominated by tea party activists and libertarians who prefer to focus on taxes and the role of government and often disagree with social conservatives on drugs or gay rights.

Meanwhile, the list of possible front-runners for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has a limited relationship with evangelical activists, and the libertarian-leaning Paul, the senator from Kentucky who only recently began reaching out to social conservatives. One prominent establishment favorite weighing a bid, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), is a supporter of legal same-sex marriage who claims his views on the issue could help him and his party appeal to younger voters.

The disconnect between social conservatives and the GOP has become a “chasm,” said Gary Bauer, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and is now head of the Campaign for Working Families. He pointed to the party’s two most recent presidential nominees, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, as examples of candidates who were touted initially as having broad appeal to centrists in the general election but ultimately never inspired evangelicals and lost.

“Values voters have been treated as the stepchildren of the family, while the party has wanted to get on with so-called more electorally popular ideas,” Bauer said. “The Republican base will not tolerate another candidate foisted upon us as a guy who can win.”

Discontent among evangelicals could have implications for the GOP next year as campaigning for the presidential nomination escalates in early-voting states such as Iowa, where social conservatives are a major bloc. Their presence could complicate matters for top-tier candidates such as Christie and Paul who want to remain viable in a general election but will feel pressure to appeal to religious voters. A surge of support for more fiery contenders such as Carson or former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) could turn candidate debates into a spectacle while pulling everyone to the right, affecting the party’s image more broadly.

Even if social conservatives turn out this year to support like-minded candidates for Congress and help propel the GOP into the Senate majority, they could just as easily decide to sit out a presidential race if they feel the party again has produced a nominee who does not represent their interests.

Their absence could mean fewer votes for the Republican nominee in closely contested swing states. And perhaps more important, it could also mean fewer campaign volunteers to staff phone banks and knock on doors. Active churchgoers can be among a campaign’s most effective ground army.

The feelings of disaffection are a decade in the making. Social conservatives, who make up about 40 percent of the Republican electorate, according to polls, fell in love with George W. Bush in 2000. They mobilized for Bush’s reelection four years later after he endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But many activists felt Bush’s team did not push hard enough on moral issues in his second term. Since then, evangelical Republicans have not coalesced enthusiastically around a viable contender for the presidency.

A number of possible 2016 candidates have been jockeying to become the evangelicals’ favorite — including Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, as well as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Paul and Santorum.

Huckabee used a gathering of pastors this month in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to express his amusement that some Republicans seem unwilling to discuss moral issues. He warned the private gathering, according to an account in the Des Moines Register, that “liberty cannot function unless there are people who are willing to live with integrity.”

Huckabee was not available for an interview. He cautioned in a statement, delivered through a spokesman, that the Republican Party “should not take these voters for granted, because as we’ve seen in the past two elections, if the candidates don’t connect with the values voters, [the voters] will simply stay home.”

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SOURCE: Washington Post – Sebastian Payne

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