Christian Coalition claims victory Satisfied: Despite Bob Dole's big loss in this month's elections, the organization exults that the new Congress is more "pro-life, pro-family."

Sun Journal

November 19, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The Christian Coalition has surveyed the election results and declared victory.

Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, of course, lost big. But the new Congress, a coalition spokesman said, is more "pro-life, pro-family" than the one assembled in 1994, the year of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution.

"We're very happy, quite frankly, with the ideological shift in the 105th Congress [which is to take office in January] over the 104th," says Mike Russell from the Christian Coalition's Chesapeake, Va., headquarters.

"We had a handful of candidates go down. But we maintained control."

The Christian Coalition, largest of the religious right's advocacy groups with 1.7 million members, invested heavily in this year's congressional races. It distributed 45 million voter guides, Russell says, covering "every House race, every Senate race, every governor's race."

(The coalition is not allowed to endorse candidates without giving up its tax-exempt status. It describes its voter guide -- with sketches of the candidates and their stands on issues -- as voter education.)

Happy with investment

Meanwhile, labor unions were spending millions of dollars to back Democratic candidates. Russell, who wouldn't discuss the cost of the coalition's voter guides, says he's confident that the Christian Coalition's investment produced the bigger return.

Russell ticks off a list of electoral successes for which, he said, the Christian Coalition could take credit. Among them: the election of two new Republican senators in Kansas -- Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback -- to replace Dole and the retiring Sen. Nancy Kassebaum; the re-election of Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina; and the election of Republican Michael Enzi to replace Sen. Alan Simpson in Wyoming.

"What we're seeing is a shift from moderate Republicans to pro-life, pro-family Republicans," Russell says.

It's not surprising that the election results are viewed quite differently at the Washington offices of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"For 45 or 47 million voter guides, they sure didn't get much of a result," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

Some initiatives lose

Dole spent the summer talking more about tax cuts than abortion. Some state initiatives backed by the coalition, including a parental rights issue in Colorado, lost at the polls.

So Lynn has a more negative interpretation of the Christian Coalition's record. "They lost some of their favorite members of Congress," he says, including Rep. Randy Tate in Washington and Reps. David Funderburk and Fred Heineman in North Carolina.

"They didn't fail," Lynn says of the religious right. "But I'd have to give them a D."

Twenty-nine percent of the voting public, according to a national survey, describe themselves as born-again Christians who frequently attend church. That constituency kept Congress in Republican hands, Russell says. It could have helped Dole, he says, had the candidate reached out to those voters.

"Dole won our constituency 53-to-36," Russell says. "He needed to be in the low 70s and could have been there. He at times did not carry the issues banner -- like voluntary prayer in schools, school choice, pro-life issues -- high enough. He sometimes put that banner down."

That is probably because Dole and the religious right were not a natural pairing, says Eric Uslaner, a University of Maryland political science professor.

"The Republican nominee is not someone they liked very much," Uslaner says. "Bob Dole is not one of them. Bob Dole is a mainstream Republican. Bob Dole is the antithesis of the Christian Coalition. He's a facilitator, a mediator."

Members of the religious right aren't afraid to create legislative gridlock, Uslaner says. "They believe compromise is fundamentally immoral."

Dole was warned

Throughout the campaign, the Christian Coalition had warned Dole that moral issues should not be forgotten while he preached tax cuts and budget reductions. Dole disappointed them, but the Christian Coalition takes credit -- justifiably or not -- for moving Clinton to endorse several of their "pro-family" concerns.

"He did a very good job of co-opting a lot of issues that conservative Republicans have been speaking about," Russell says. "Look at the V-chip" -- used for limiting violence programming on television.

"Look at pornography on the Internet. Look at school uniforms and teen curfews."

Some observers believe the religious right doesn't need to win both Congress and the White House to set the political agenda. The Christian Coalition was far more effective campaigning at the local level than in national contests, says Benjamin Ginsberg, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.

"Presidential elections are fought by what could be called air power," he says. "They're fought on television by candidates who pretend to present ideas.

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