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Dan Gilgoff Headshot

The GOP's Bakker Problem

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With all the eulogizing of her mascara and false eyelashes, it's easy to forget that the PTL scandal surrounding Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim dealt an immense blow to American evangelicalism when it broke in 1987.

Perhaps no one outside the Bakkers' immediate friends and family was as hard hit as Pat Robertson. The scandal so tarnished televangelism that Robertson saw revenues from his Christian Broadcasting Network tumble $12 million in the ensuing two months. Even worse, from Robertson's perspective, was that the scandal cast a pall over his long shot presidential campaign, which was just getting off the ground. A poll from the time found that 65-percent of Americans now held an unfavorable opinion of most televangelists.

A similar dynamic is at work today, with a string of scandals involving avowed champions of family values threatening to seriously damage not just one presidential hopeful, but an entire political party: the GOP.

The clearest evidence is last November's election, when voters cited corruption and scandal as a top concern. On the heels of disclosures about lewd messages to young male congressional pages from Florida Rep. Mark Foley, money laundering charges against House Leader Tom DeLay, and apparent meth-fuel gay trysts involving National Association of Evangelicals president and White House pal Ted Haggard, Democrats won control of Congress.

In fact, internal Democratic National Committee polling showed that a key reason for the Democratic takeover was that the party had narrowed the Republican advantage among so-called "values-first" voters -- for whom religious faith is as important as any other factor in determining how to cast a ballot -- to 10 points. That's down from 30 points on Election Day 2004.

And in the months since the midterm elections, the gap has narrowed even further. Current DNC polls have the GOP advantage among such voters down to seven points. "I didn't think I'd be saying this after the midterm election, but months have gone by and there has been no snap-back," DNC pollster Cornell Belcher told me. "The damage that's been done to the Republican brand on values is deep."

Belcher is the first to admit that the narrowing of the values gap is due mostly to Republican scandals, rather than to Democratic efforts to woo religious voters. But those scandals keep coming. Just this month, conservative Louisiana Senator David Vitter admitted to committing a "very serious sin" in connection with an escort service run by so-called D.C. Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey.

For now, the GOP is standing by Vitter. But they've got to find a way to make such tawdry scandals go away. Here again, Tammy Faye is instructive. Though she avoided criminal charges in the PTL scandal -- her husband was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison but paroled in 1994 -- she remained a national joke, reduced to a spot on the reality show The Surreal Life alongside porn star Ron Jeremy. Such second acts may be acceptable for a woman who, at her core, was an audience-hungry performer. But not for a political party that owes its modern ascent to the emergence of "values" issues, and to whom "values-first" voters are still the base.