A couple of months ago, the New York Times reported on the religious-right movement’s restlessness ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign. Christian right leaders realize much of the Republican establishment is rallying behind Jeb Bush, but they believe “values voters” will still have a key role in the nominating process and the movement wants a standard bearer of their own.
None of this came as a surprise. Indeed, we’ve seen social conservatives try these organizational efforts before, usually to little effect. What was surprising, however, was the religious right’s shortlist: “In secret straw polls and exclusive meetings from Iowa to California, the leaders are weighing the relative appeal and liabilities of potential standard-bearers like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.”
The article made almost no mention of Gov. Scott Walker (R), and on the surface, it’s hard to understand why. If the Christian right is skeptical of Bush, and polls suggest Walker is the other top-tier contender, why would social conservatives deliberately look past the Wisconsin conservative?
Politico reported yesterday on the unexpected dynamic – and what Walker hopes to do about it.
Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist preacher who says he takes his orders from God, has an unexpected problem on his hands: Many social conservatives don’t trust him.Next week, the Wisconsin governor will travel to Capitol Hill to hold a private meeting with influential evangelical leaders, some of whom are expressing deep reservations about his track record on issues near and dear to them. Pointing to his past statements, and even his hire of a top campaign aide, they are openly questioning whether his views on abortion and gay marriage align with theirs and whether he’s willing to fight for their cause.
The piece quotes Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council and one of the movement leaders Walker will meet with on Tuesday, complaining that the Wisconsin governor once referred to social issues as a “distraction” – a line the religious right is still annoyed by.
I’m not generally inclined to defend Walker, but it’s worth noting for context that when he dismissed social issues as a “distraction,” he was trying to win re-election in a battleground state that twice backed President Obama. In other words, the governor embraced a far-right posture on social issues, but didn’t really want to talk about it too much, fearing he would alienate Wisconsin’s mainstream.
Regardless, the idea that there could be some kind of rift between Walker and the Christian right is rather bizarre. Among the leading 2016 candidates, the GOP governor is actually one of the most far-right hopefuls on social issues like gay rights and reproductive rights.
So what’s the point of Tuesday’s audition? Religion Dispatches’s Sarah Posner and the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore suggest this is a bit of a power play on the part of religious-right groups with waning influence.
It’s a good point. In the 1990s, movement leaders envisioned a massive, Christian political machine – TV preacher Pat Robertson once boasted about helping lead his own Tammany Hall – in which they were the power brokers. Candidates would kiss the rings of the most powerful and high-profile social conservatives, and they in turn would tell the faithful who to vote for.
A generation later, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. The movement still exists, but as an electoral matter, it’s been largely decentralized. As Kilgore put it, “rank-and-file conservative evangelicals … aren’t necessarily following their old leaders these days.”
It creates an interesting dynamic: Walker is reportedly going to an audition of sorts on Tuesday, hoping to impress religious-right leaders, but if Perkins and his cohorts aren’t impressed, do they really have the power to move votes as they please? Or are some of these outfits more of a paper tiger than a power broker?