Huffpost Politics
Jon Ward Headshot

Social Conservatives Squabble Over Winner Of Texas Meeting Vote

Posted: Updated:

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Discord among social conservative leaders about which Republican presidential candidate to back reached a new low Monday, as opposing factions bickered over whether Rick Santorum won the support of a meeting in Texas over the weekend or not.

The infighting prompted Don Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, to muse openly that the GOP's right wing may be about to fumble any chance at having a candidate of their choice.

"In the past, Christian conservatives have split their votes among three or four candidates. This has allowed the moderate-liberal wing of the Republican Party to capture the nomination. It appears we might do the same thing again," Wildmon said in a statement released by Newt Gingrich's campaign.

Mitt Romney, thought of by Wildmon and others as the candidate of the party's "moderate-liberal wing," stands to benefit from the dysfunction. If the GOP's right wing cannot unite by Saturday's primary here, Romney is poised to win his third contest in a row, and many would consider his clinching the nomination to be a mere formality at that point.

But as Saturday's primary grew a day nearer, Gingrich's campaign devoted energy on Monday to fighting the impression that Santorum was the winner this past weekend. The Gingrich campaign sent out two releases Monday protesting the way that a weekend confab of social conservative leaders was portrayed as a victory for the former Pennsylvania senator.

Meanwhile, others close to the talks whispered anonymously that the process of voting for a favored candidate at the Texas meeting was unfair or even compromised.

Gary Bauer, president of American Values and a veteran culture warrior, was one of Santorum's chief representatives at the meeting, and disputed the complaints.

"It may be a little bit of sour grapes from folks with another agenda or something," Bauer told The Huffington Post in a phone interview.

"If you have 150 people in a room, you are always going to have a couple unhappy folks, but I want to be really clear about this: nobody was ever cut off from anything. We had ample time to talk, and there were no objections to the process or to taking a couple of ballots to see if there was any movement," Bauer said. "So it is a little surprising to see people complaining about that now."

Richard Land, a national Southern Baptist leader who is not endorsing a candidate but has spoken favorably of Santorum, agreed with Bauer.

"It would be contrary to the spirit of the meeting and inaccurate to say that it wasn't a fair process," Land told HuffPost. "There was somebody from each of the campaigns that was part of the counting process. It would be unfair to say that it was in any way underhanded or an unfair process."

Land said that the first of three ballots was split largely between Santorum and Gingrich, the former House Speaker from Georgia, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry getting 13 votes and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex) getting one vote. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee got one write-in vote as well, Land said.

On the second ballot, Santorum got 10 of Perry's supporters and Gingrich received three.

After the second ballot, Land said, "a decision was made to ask people to pray about it and take a recess and see -- if they were Gingrich supporters -- if they could be willing to support Santorum. And when we came back and had a third ballot, Santorum got 79 percent of the votes."

Addressing complaints that the voting, or some of the balloting, took place after some Gingrich supporters had left, Land said, "If they left early, I'm sorry, but it's not like we waited until they left to vote."

The Gingrich campaign's second release on the topic Monday was a statement by five conservative supporters who attended the meeting and who said that "there was no consensus regarding a candidate."

The statement was signed by former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), pollster George Barna, Rev. Jim Garlow of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, Rev. Richard Lee of First Redeemer Church in Atlanta, and David Lane, a political operative who moves in social conservative circles.

"It is unfortunate that early press reports incorrectly stated that there was a consensus for Santorum, or that the '150 leaders endorsed Santorum,'" the statement said. "Such was not the case. Many there were and still are for Newt Gingrich."

Land shot back, "I would argue that 79 percent of the vote was a strong consensus."

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, was criticized by some for speaking to the press while the Saturday meeting was still going on and telling reporters that the vote had been in Santorum's favor. Perkins did not return a call for comment from The Huffington Post.

But the infighting reflected the current impasse afflicting the social and religious conservative wing of the Republican party, which has former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney poised for a win in South Carolina in Saturday's primary. The latest poll of the state's Republican voters by InsiderAdvantage on Monday showed Romney at 32 percent, up 9 points from the last poll taken by the same firm just five days earlier. Gingrich was at 21 percent, Paul at 14 percent, Santorum at 13 percent and Perry at 5 percent.

Even if social conservatives do unite behind Santorum or Gingrich, Land noted that the end result might only be to ultimately give Romney stronger support from that portion of the GOP.

"Social conservatives will feel better about supporting Romney if they feel like we did our best to not divide our forces but to unite behind a social conservative, and that social conservative lost fair and square," Land said. "It will be easier for them to get behind Romney than if they feel like, 'What could have happened if we had been united?'"

Around the Web

Social conservatives back Rick Santorum - POLITICO.com

Social Conservatives Vote To Back Santorum : NPR

Battle For Social Conservatives Heats Up As Santorum Wins Key ...

Social conservative leaders back Santorum to stop Romney's ...

Is social conservatives' embrace of Santorum too late? - The ...

Sen. Rick Santorum Gathers Support from Social Conservatives ...

Santorum Gets Backing From Social Conservatives : NPR

Gingrich Warns Social Conservatives Not to Back Romney

Romney Targets SC Social Conservatives With Robo-Call Blitz

Social conservative leaders to assess GOP candidates

Social conservatives may rally around Santorum before Florida — but could ...

Is South Carolina the Last Gasp for Tea Party in GOP Nomination?

 
  Obama Romney
Obama Romney
332 206
Obama leading
Obama won
Romney leading
Romney won
Popular Vote
33 out of 100 seats are up for election. 51 are needed for a majority.
Democrat leading
Democrat won
Holdover
Republican leading
Republican won
Democrats* Republicans
Current Senate 53 47
Seats gained or lost +2 -2
New Total 55 45
* Includes two independent senators expected to caucus with the Democrats: Angus King (Maine) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
All 435 seats are up for election. 218 are needed for a majority.
Democrat leading
Democrat won
Republican leading
Republican won
Democrats Republicans
Seats won 201 234
Click for Full Results