WASHINGTON – As the GOP establishment attempts to turn their focus away from issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and religion to appeal to more voters, their base is fighting to ensure that precisely those issues aren’t just addressed, but are front and center in 2016.
At this weekend’s Values Voter Summit, a frustrated and fiery Christian right emerged, promising to mobilize and elect Republicans who have “morals,” or rather, are proudly and loudly anti-abortion, against gay marriage, and fundamentally Christian.
A straw poll of the roughly 2,000 attendees found that religious freedom was the group’s number one priority, followed by opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. In Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s words, “Not – ‘it’s the economy, stupid,’ rather – ‘It’s the culture, stupid.’”
Republican hopefuls like Jindal—eager to distinguish themselves in what promises to be a crowded Republican primary—are promising to give them exactly that.
“There are people in Washington who say Republicans to win have to abandon values,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz—this year’s straw poll winner and the movement’s apparent elected leader. “Our values are who we are. Our values are why we’re here.”
Sen. Rand Paul tried his hand: “Maybe our country’s revival depends on seeking and rediscovering the synthesis of freedom and tradition.”
That’s not how the party establishment sees it.
The party wants to appeal to women and young people, historically more socially liberal voting blocks, and avoid the bad press Republicans like Todd Akin previously earned talking rape. Their 2012 “autopsy” after Romney’s loss warned that same-sex marriage rhetoric needed to be silenced and that a focus on social issues wasn’t always inclusive.
“When it comes to social issues, the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming,” the report concluded. “If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”
But that’s not what the speakers at Values Voters wanted to chat about.
On abortion, Liberty Counsel’s Mat Steaver said that Obamacare is “forcing you to commit genocide” because abortion and birth control methods are covered under the plan. (A full half of all Americans support abortion in certain circumstances and more than a quarter of Americans support it in all circumstances.)
Countless speakers slammed Islam and the president for not better protecting Christians’ religious freedoms, all while eviscerating Islam and warning of its dangers.
“We’ve got a president more interesting in defending the reputation of Islam than he does saving the lives of Christians,” conservative activist Gary Bauer said.
Many argued that Christians were being persecuted for their beliefs, often pointing to Sweet Cakes by Melissa, an Oregon bakery that refused to bake a cake for a lesbian couple’s wedding. (Melissa spoke at the Summit, bursting into tears.)
“This kind of thing is happening in stores and businesses, mom and pop shops all across the country,” conservative radio host Todd Starnes said. “They came under fire simply because they support traditional marriage.”
Heterosexual marriage is the “natural order” and it predates gravity, Steaver said, while retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann in an interview at the Summit declared gay marriage “boring” and “not an issue.”
The GOP meanwhile has pledged to “change their tone” and be more inclusive, something that will inevitably cause a party rift in 2016.
It’s not what the ‘values voters’ are hoping for, however.
“America is not in trouble because of the people who don’t share our values. America’s in trouble because the people who do share our values aren’t showing up,” Former Gov. Mike Huckabee added.
During his address, Huckabee laid out some convinced numbers: “There are over 80 million self-identified evangelicals in America,” he said. “Only 40 million of them are even registered to vote. And of the 20 million that will vote during a presidential election, only 10 million of them will vote during an off-year election like this one.”
He continued: “What would happen if, instead of half of those voters being registered, 75% of them were? And what would happen if, instead of half of them voting, 75% of them voted? If 10 more evangelicals had voted in the last presidential election, we would have a different president than the one we have right now. “