Republicans woo evangelical base in bid to recapture the Senate

Chad Connelly is director of faith engagement for the Republican National Committee and oversees its new digital outreach initiative to conservative believers, GOPfaith.com.
Chad Connelly is Director of Faith Engagement for the Republican National Committee and oversees its new digital outreach initiative to conservative believers, GOPfaith.com.

Photo courtesy of the Republican National Committee

Chad Connelly is director of faith engagement for the Republican National Committee and oversees its new digital outreach initiative to conservative believers, GOPfaith.com.

(RNS) The Republican National Committee on Friday (June 27) launched its first web-based effort to rally conservative believers behind the party, a sign of how crucial voter turnout will be in this fall’s close-fought midterm elections and an indication that the GOP cannot take its evangelical Christian base for granted.

“This shouldn’t be outreach, this should be who we are — it is who we are,” said Chad Connelly, director of faith engagement for the Republican National Committee and the force behind this new initiative, GOPfaith.com.

Evangelicals, Connelly said, “are our biggest, most reliable voting bloc.”

The problem, however, is that even though evangelicals identify more closely than ever with the GOP, they have not been turning out at the polls in sufficient numbers to carry Republican candidates to victory.

Connelly, a conservative Christian and former chairman of the Republican Party in South Carolina, said that as he traveled the country in 2012 working for the election of Mitt Romney, he found that “the faith vote was an afterthought in a lot of places.”

That came back to haunt the party, he said. He cited surveys showing that while 89 million Americans identify as evangelical Christians, just a third of them voted in the 2012 election — and more than a fifth of those voters pulled the lever for President Obama.

RNC chair Reince Priebus set up the RNC’s Faith Engagement group last year, its first-ever strategic initiative aimed exclusively at conservative faith-based voters. Priebus tapped Connelly to head it, and this new get-out-the-vote campaign — “an online home for all of our efforts, all around the country,” as he says in a video on the site.

In past years, the party didn’t need to make such efforts. Conservative believers reliably turned out for the GOP, often mobilized by adjunct organizations like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition.

But those groups are gone or greatly diminished, and the GOP can now use digital tools — much as Democrats have done to great effect — to directly reach constituents who may support their agenda but who are not always showing up on Election Day.

The aim of the website is, as it says, “to build an army of conservative pro-faith activists” — sympathetic believers of all faiths, but in particular conservative Christians. The plan is to identify 100,000 believers who will spread the word at the grass roots, especially in churches.

Central to the effort are pastors, who Connelly said have been too reticent to preach about political issues. Under federal law, houses of worship could jeopardize their tax-exempt status if they endorse individual candidates.

“Let’s overcome that myth of the IRS saying you can’t talk about this from the pulpit,” he said. “Look, if there’s no freedom of speech in the pulpit, there’s no freedom of speech.”

“Now is the time of righteous indignation,” he said, a time to be the “turn-the-tables-over Jesus” and not the “meek, turn-the-other-cheek Jesus.”

The immediate goal of this initiative is to “maximize the faith vote” in key Senate races, especially in red or purple states like Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina. Winning those seats is essential to the GOP dreams of retaking the majority in the Senate this year.

While conservative Christian voters, and white evangelicals in particular, are probably not by themselves sufficient to put a Republican in the White House in 2016, they can make the difference in local and state races.

The new effort is also a signal that despite the internal feuds over whether the GOP should downplay divisive issues like abortion and gay marriage, the party’s leadership knows it needs religious conservatives if it hopes to capitalize on Democratic weaknesses in November.

“Many Republican leaders are tired of losing, they see some real opportunities to win, and that means they have to fire on all cylinders, if you will. And this is a key constituency,” said John Green, head of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and a leading expert on religion in American politics.

“They don’t have to woo them to the party as much as they need to woo them to the polls,” Green said of conservative evangelicals.

Connelly agreed.

“Nobody should ever question our party’s commitments, or our rank-and-file’s commitment, to our core beliefs,” he said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • The more the GOP panders to the most extreme members of it base, the more they drive off moderates.

    Pretty soon the GOP will consist of nothing more than a handful of old white men.

  • I’m really sick and tired of these conservative politicians taking exclusive custody of the “Faith” vote. Jesus would be condemned by today’s GOP as a socialistic liberal illegal alien, and yet they persist in claiming sole possession of the title. What a bunch of hypocrites.

  • Republican Dominated Senate/Congress and Exec Office 2000-2006 = No Law Outlawing Abortion.

    Evangelicals have seen through the GOP.

  • Re: the headline, “Republicans woo evangelical base …”

    This is news? They’ve only been doing it for 40 years or so … !

  • Re: “I’m really sick and tired of these conservative politicians taking exclusive custody of the ‘Faith’ vote.”

    They do it for one simple reason: It works! Believers in this country long ago largely ceded their power to “conservative” Christian politicians. They vote for them reliably and consistently.

    I wonder if this is where the problem lies, and where the solution is, too. Maybe it’s time to remind your fellow believers that they’re voting for the wrong people?

  • The problem has always come from when the Evangelicals actually think they are running the GOP. The whole point of wooing them is just for their votes at election time. The leadership of the party has never taken them seriously for anything else. It is simply a way to get poor people to vote against their economic interests. Get them to vote against organized labor, regulation of industries, labor laws, taxation reform, healthcare reform… All in exchange for go nowhere social agendas like anti-abortion, attacks on the 1st Amendment, nowadays gay marriage…

    The typical political agenda of Evangelical’s is so divisive, unpopular (and unconstitutional) that under sane conditions it has zero chance of advancing on anything but local levels. Even then, it creates such backlash that it has little to no staying power. In 2012 Mitt Romney had to play up his fiscal conservative credentials (“I’m rich and powerful, listen to me”) in order not to be swamped by a sea of bible thumping loons in the GOP primaries.

    The relationship is dysfunctional but for Evangelicals, they are happy someone even pretends to take them seriously.

  • My lawsuit with Chad Connelly and the SC GOP for libel and slander should soon be over. Mediation is July 22nd. Any questions, call Attorney Andrew Hart (864) 574-0870

  • Obviously you did. 🙂

    Keep voting for people who want to reduce you to serfdom because they are “in tight with God”. See if I care.

  • It will be great when the GOP becomes the “Christian Party.”
    Americans will have no choice but to reject it.
    Nothing is more unAmerican than a Theocracy. Even Christians are too smart to fall for that.

  • The GOP has been the Christian Party for as long as I’ve been alive. Far from working to their disadvantage, it’s about the only thing that garners them votes. “God, guns and gays,” as President Obama put it, are the only issues they’ve got.

  • Except that the GOP was also once a party for separation of church and state – as I recall – which was why they made such a big issue of John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism.
    Now the GOP doesn’t mind being the Theocracy Party. And That is what the democrats could crush them with. Theocracy is anathema to most Americans – even the churchgoers.

  • What’s really indicative of the illiteracy of the vast majority of qualified voters is that they are just as ignorant about religion as they are about politics. Literacy testing for voting is very, very wrong–I guess–but how can we have a humane, functioning government, much less a real democracy, when the voters who hire the government are so illiterate about issues and candidates?

    The present condition of the Republican Party and their cause of a do-nothing Congress, to say nothing of our Catholic-dominated, life-termed Supreme Court that defies our Constitution rather than protecting it, does not make for democracy.

    Add to the problem of illiteracy the laziness of that same electorate in which potential voters do not exercise their right and duty in hiring our government. They hurt themselves. They make our government worse and worse.

    Money must be removed from our elections in the way that it is considered speech. Corporations have never been people, only collections of people who have the right and opportunity to exercise their voting rights individually to hire a government that works for their benefit.

  • @Gilhan,

    And it doesn’t help that our politicians are anti-intellectuals and lousy teachers. They should be using their podiums to speak to the virtues of public service
    instead of berating the concept of government.