(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 to 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, 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. Federal law prohibits houses of worship from endorsing individual candidates, although clergy are free to preach on social and political issues.
“Let’s overcome that myth of the IRS saying you can’t talk 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 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.
“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-hand-on-deck approach.”