Political observers in the media and elsewhere tend to sum up elections in short, catchy blurbs. That’s the only way they feel they can impart “what the voters said” on Election Day, even though “what the voters said” in one state or district is often contradictory to and inconsistent with “what the voters said” in another. Thus, 1992 became the “Year of the Woman,” 1994 became the “Year of the Angry White Male,” 2000 was the “Year of the Red-Blue Divide,” and 2004 was the “Year of the Moral Values Voters” (though pundits still debate the role of “moral values” in ’04).
What will they say about the 2005 off-year elections? Well, certainly they will say that the Democrats mounted a bit of a comeback against the GOP, which had been enjoying a string of victories over the Democrats for the better part of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Democrats retained control of the governorships in Virginia (a red state) and New Jersey (a blue state.) Meanwhile, California’s Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the “Jingle All The Way” phase of his political career. All four ballot initiatives supported by the Governator went down in defeat.
Though Election Day ’05 was not the bloodbath Howard Dean and his cheering squads in the mainstream media have made it out to be, the Democrats did manage to stop their own bleeding. They have reason to celebrate.
So, what happened? Glenn Reynolds, the libertarian-leaning Instapundit said, “I also think that I may have been right in suggesting that the GOP had lost its mojo with the Terri Schiavo affair. Things seem to have started to go south then, not only because of the issue itself, but because of the divisive venom that so many Schiavo partisans aimed at people who disagreed with them. I think it was very damaging to the GOP coalition, and they’ve continued to pay a price.”
With all due respect to my friend Glenn, I don’t see how he or anyone else can conclude from Tuesday’s election results that the GOP has “lost its mojo with the Terri Schiavo affair,” especially since there is zero evidence that it was even raised as an issue in any of Tuesday’s elections. Glenn also ignores the fact that nearly half of the House Democrats who were present voted in favor of “Terri’s Law.”
Rather, I’d argue that most voters in Virginia, California, and New Jersey, as well as in the larger cities across America, have long since forgotten about the Terri Schiavo affair and that it had virtually no impact at all on the election results. And to be quite frank, the social conservative wing of the conservative coalition is in decidedly better shape than the libertarian-ish, fiscally conservative/socially agnostic side.
Taking a slightly modified tack, Bobby Ross, Jr. suggested in a Religion News Service article that election 2005 was a bad one for religious conservatives. “Religious conservatives lost electoral fights to pass an abortion law in California, overturn gay-rights legislation in Maine….” Ross quoted Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe saying, “…maybe we’ll look back and say the Bush first term was really the high point of the Christian right’s influence in American politics.”
Blaming the “Religious Right” for poor conservative Election Day performances, or accusing the Republican Party of being “too beholden to the Religious Right,” is often the pro forma analysis offered up by almost all casual political observers. And declaring the “Religious Right” dead is the biannual sport of pundits everywhere. I suppose that strain of Wednesday morning quarterbacking will never die. But a closer examination of Tuesday’s results, coupled with last week’s referendum vote in Colorado, indicates that the GOP and conservatives in general succeed when they talk more about those dreaded social issues than when they promote a small government philosophy or advocate spending cuts.
To begin with, it is inaccurate to say that the Religious Right lost ground on Tuesday because parental notification died in California and the repeal of a gay rights law earned only 44% of the vote in Maine. It would be more accurate to say that the growth in Evangelical electoral strength has never permeated the political cultures of those two states. Evangelical Christians make up only 14% of the electorate in Maine and only 11% in California compared to the national average of 23%. To conclude that the Religious Right is “losing ground” from these two election results is a fallacy.
Secondly, all eight statewide ballot measures in California went down. This was the result of a massive advertising and Get-Out-The-Vote campaign conducted by the state employees and teachers unions. Curiously, Proposition 73, the measure requiring parental notification for a minor to have an abortion, was the top vote getter on the ballot, though it, too, went down in defeat: 47.4% of voters supported the ban. 600,000 more voters supported the ban than supported Proposition 76, a measure that “limits state spending to prior year’s level plus three previous years’ average revenue growth.” Only 38% of voters thought that was a good idea.
Now let us turn to Texas. The Lone Star State became the eighteenth to write a ban on gay marriage into its constitution. And Texans did so in a big way. Three-quarters of the voting population supported the ban. Only one county voted against it.
Compare this level of success on a compelling social issue with, say, Colorado’s November 1st vote to remove the teeth of that state’s once-groundbreaking Taxpayers Bill of Rights. By a vote of 52%-48%, voters authorized the state to spend more money and, in effect, raise their taxes.
Meanwhile, the only high-profile candidate this off-year to communicate an openly religious message was Democrat gubernatorial candidate (now Governor-elect) Tim Kaine. To be sure, Kaine played fast-and-loose with the definition of “pro-life,” among other things, but he advertised, ahem, liberally on Christian radio and spoke candidly about his faith in his commercials.
After the GOP’s historic success in 2004 — success attributable at least in part (though I would argue mostly) to almost 30 million religious conservatives — the Bush administration swiftly pivoted to a massive spending reduction proposal in the form of Social Security privatization. That pivot angered many Evangelical Christian political activists who subsequently refused to engaged in the president’s national campaign-style effort in support of his Social Security reform, which is now all but officially dead.
Contrary to Glenn Reynolds’ and Dr. Wolfe’s analyses, Christian conservatives are alive and well and holding up their end of the big tent. It is the socially moderate, libertarian wing that is not doing its share in keeping it up.