The religious right, as a political movement, may not have quite as much influence over the Republican Party as it once did, but there's no denying that social conservative activists still make up a big chunk of the GOP base. Collectively, these so-called "values voters" can play a key role in choosing the party's next presidential nominee.
And at this early stage in the process, the religious right is repeating a familiar message
: if social conservatives stick together, rally behind a trusted standard bearer, and prevent the movement from dividing its support in a crowded field, they can play the role of kingmaker.
Fearing that Republicans will ultimately nominate an establishment presidential candidate like Jeb Bush, leaders of the nation's Christian right have mounted an ambitious effort to coalesce their support behind a single social-conservative contender months before the first primary votes are cast. [...] The efforts to coalesce behind an alternative candidate -- in frequent calls, teleconferences and meetings involving a range of organizations, many of them with overlapping memberships -- are premised on two articles of conservative faith: Republicans did not win the White House in the past two elections because their nominees were too moderate and failed to excite the party's base. And a conservative alternative failed to win the nomination each time because voters did not unite behind a single champion in the primary fight.
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, told the New York Times, "There's a shared desire to come behind a candidate." Social conservatives aren't ready to make a choice, but Perkins added that it's "not too early for the conversations to begin."
We don't yet know who the religious right will embrace, but we can say with some confidence who the movement has ruled out. Jeb Bush has maintained an aggressive outreach campaign
to leading social conservatives, and the former governor has even hired
a prominent religious right attorney as a campaign adviser, but it's clear
the Christian Right doesn't see Bush as a trusted and reliable ally.
Which leaves a half-dozen other conservatives for the religious right to choose from. The leading contenders appear to be Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Mike Huckabee.
But there's a larger question hanging over head: doesn't this seem a little familiar?
This time it's going to be different! That's the cry of social conservatives as they try to rally themselves around a single candidate this year, flexing the conservative right's muscle against the dread establishment. Stop me if you've heard this one before. Actually, don't, because you have.
The pattern started in earnest In 1996, when the Republican establishment rallied behind Bob Dole, whom social conservatives never really liked or trusted. The religious right was determined to rally behind a credible alternative, which never happened. (The movement did, however, invest considerable time and energy trying to keep Colin Powell out of the race.)
In 2000, the religious right wanted John Ashcroft, who didn't run. In 2008, the religious right hated John McCain, but couldn't settle on a rival. In 2012, the religious right was skeptical about Mitt Romney, but again, it failed to coalesce behind someone else.
It's not that these "conversations," to use Perkins' word, didn't occur in these previous cycles. It's just that social conservatives tend to splinter among competing groups and leaders. There's no reason to believe 2015-2016 will be any different.
Gary Bauer told the Times, "I think everybody understands -- more, even, at the grass-roots level -- that there has been a pattern, and the pattern needs to be broken."
Perhaps. But neither Bauer nor anyone else has indicated how, exactly, that might happen.