The Interest Groups
By Matthew Vita and Susan Schmidt,
in The Washington Post,
Thursday 2 November 2000; Page A20
For Christian conservatives, the big story of the 2000 election is
that they are not the story.
Ever since its rise two decades ago, the religious right has been a
lightning rod for moderates and independents concerned about its
positions on abortion, school prayer, gay rights and other social
This year, however, Christian conservative groups have made a
deliberate decision to stay out of the limelight, even as they try to
step up their grass-roots efforts to increase voter turnout among
supporters, according to analysts who follow the movement.
"The Christian right tactically is keeping its head down,"
said James Guth, who teaches political science at Furman University in
Greenville, S.C. "They have come to realize that, after 20 years,
most of the people they are trying to mobilize are pretty squarely in
the Republican camp and that the thing that works best are quiet
efforts to get these folks out to vote."
The decision follows a difficult year for the religious right and its
main organization, the Christian Coalition, which has experienced a
leadership upheaval and financial troubles that weakened its
But religious conservative groups united early this year during the
Republican primaries behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential
candidacy, eliminating much of the infighting among them--and between
Christian conservatives and the rest of the party--that has
characterized past presidential elections. This occurred even though
Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is more moderate than many
religious conservatives would like, reflecting a new spirit of
pragmatism within the religious right, according to analysts.
It also underscores the high stakes of this election. With the White
House within reach and the prospect that the next president will
select several Supreme Court justices and tip the balance on abortion,
Christian conservatives are focused on helping Bush win, even if it
means muting their voice in the process.
"They have pulled out all the stops to elect George Bush. This is
as major a campaign as they have had," said Barry Lynn, executive
director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which
tracks the Christian Coalition's efforts to mobilize supporters in
According to Roberta Combs, executive director of the Christian
Coalition, the group will distribute more than 70 million voter guides
in churches this weekend. It also has made 1 million calls to people
urging them to vote and has sent get-out-the-vote postcards in such
battleground states as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Missouri, she
said. "This is the biggest get-out-the-vote effort that the
Christian Coalition has ever done," Combs said. "Our phones
are ringing off the hook."
In California, the coalition will distribute 4 million voter
guides. That comes on the heels of a letter in September from
entertainer Pat Boone to 20,000 churches urging pastors to distribute
voter registration forms, according to Miriam Archer, the coalition's
director of operations in the state.
The coalition will pass out 3 million voter guides in Florida, 1
million of them in Spanish for the first time, said Terry Kemple, the
organization's state director. It also will distribute 3 million
guides to more than 6,000 churches in Ohio, according to Steve
Hartkop, the coalition's Ohio state director.
"I think this year's effort is larger than any effort the
coalition has ever been involved with," said Hartkop, whose wife,
Chris, started the first Christian Coalition chapter in Ohio in 1990.
John Green, who follows the religious right at the University of
Akron, said that although the coalition's claims may be inflated, the
volume of organizational activity by Christian groups as a whole this
year "looks like it will be about equal to 1996."
But Green said the closeness of the presidential race means such
groups may have a greater impact. "Even if they distributed only
35 million voter guides, it would make a big difference," he said.
Green said many presidential battleground states, among them Florida,
Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Michigan, have sizable Christian
evangelical or conservative Protestant populations that could
determine the outcome. He said Arkansas, Tennessee and West
Virginia--all of which President Clinton carried in 1992 and 1996--are
more competitive this year because "Christian conservatives are
The state Republican Party in Michigan believes it can best get its
message to some segments of the public through such groups. The party
has even given money to one of them, Citizens for Traditional Values,
which is running ads on Christian radio and putting out half a million
"We are building a bigger and stronger coalition for our
party," said Sage Eastman, spokesman for the Michigan state
Republican committee. The funds given to Citizens for Traditional
Values--$34,200 in the most recent reporting period, almost all of the
group's income--come from "soft money" that the party cannot
use for direct candidate advocacy.
"We can't do certain things with that soft money; we can't run
specific candidate ads," said Eastman. Citizens for Traditional
Values' political action committee is running about $20,000 worth of
radio ads statewide supporting three conservative Republican state
judicial candidates, though people who hear the ads or get voter
guides have no way of knowing that the money behind the group is
coming from the state GOP.
James Muffett, president of the values group, said his organization
backs state and local candidates from both political parties,
depending on their views on abortion and other
issues. "Generally," he acknowledged, "what we're doing is
going to benefit Republicans."
copyright 2000 The Washington Post