Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Republican Party can stave off defeat with a strong turnout on Nov. 7, party leaders are telling the faithful — but they are finding it tough to sell that message to some disillusioned conservative voters.

“The message hasn’t gotten across because a lot of people are sick and tired of thinking the only reason for going to the polls is to vote for the Republicans because they are lesser of two evils,” said Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council (FRC), a leading social conservative group.

“Conservatives aren’t motivated to come out, is what I’m finding,” said conservative campaign consultant Rick Shaftan, who is based in Sparta, N.J. “They see no reason to re-elect the people who are in office.”

A top Republican pollster confidentially echoed those sentiments.

“There are very definitely trouble signs in many states of what we call the ‘LRs’ — the lethargic Republicans,” said the pollster, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “They are unhappy with the president and have little love lost for Congress.”

There’s little danger that such voters would switch to the Democrats, but “the real problem is that they won’t vote at all,” the pollster said.

With Election Day less than three weeks away, however, efforts to mobilize conservative voters are intensifying.

Top Republicans — including President Bush, his chief strategist Karl Rove, Vice President Dick Cheney and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman — have been meeting with conservative activists, columnists and broadcasters, emphasizing the importance of this midterm election. That message has rippled out via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and the Internet.

An e-mail sent this week by the conservative group carried the subject line, “Don’t you dare not vote,” and featured a column by veteran activist Doug Patton appealing to Republican voters’ patriotism.

“As you contemplate how to express your frustration with Republican leaders who may have mishandled the power we have entrusted to them,” Mr. Patton wrote, “consider how you would explain your apathy to the 1.2 million brave men who have given their lives in America’s wars over the last 230 years.”

Meanwhile, FRC President Tony Perkins sent an e-mail this week asking supporters to sign a “values voter” pledge. The e-mail warned that “too many elective officeholders are content to downplay social issues,” but said “officials need to hear from us, again and again, that elections are about values first — moral and social norms.”

Many Republicans are worried that the sex scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley of Florida will depress turnout among religious conservatives who have been staunchly loyal to the Republican Party.

“Until the Foley scandal broke, there wasn’t even a mathematical possibility of a Democratic takeover of either body of Congress,” South Dakota-based campaign consultant Paul Erickson said. “But Foley introduced a concrete voting-base suppression factor that is immeasurable until election night.”

To explain the disaffection of some conservative voters, Mr. Shaftan cited the national party’s assistance to liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee against conservative challenger Stephen Laffey in last month’s Rhode Island primary.

“The Republican leadership spent $1 million on helping Chafee, and then it wonders why conservatives don’t think they’re wanted in this party,” Mr. Shaftan said. “They think the leadership wants them to come out every year, shine your shoes, then go sit in the back of the bus, take their Bibles and read them and shut up.”

Republican media consultant Craig Shirley said the party’s national leadership appears to be trying to scare disaffected voters to the polls by arguing that Republicans aren’t as bad as the Democrats.

“It would be nice if the national party started talking about what we are for … instead of simply trashing the left,” Mr. Shirley said. “We used to be proud of our ideas about less government and more freedom.”

In New Jersey, Mr. Shaftan said polling shows a similar attitude among rank-and-file voters.

“The left is ready for war, but our people say [Republicans in Congress] need to be taught a lesson,” Mr. Shaftan said. “Lots of our base are not going to come out and vote.”

Such discouragement has also affected many of the religious voters who were widely credited with pushing Mr. Bush to victory two years ago, Mr. Perkins said.

“There is no question that the level of enthusiasm that carried voters into the 2004 election is much diminished, however, the core of what has been described as ‘values voters’ will vote,” the FRC president said, but warned, “The GOP should not count their votes before they are cast.”

It may already be too late to reach many conservative voters, said one alumnus of the 1994 “Republican Revolution” that swept the party to its first House majority in 40 years.

“I sense that conservatives have largely already tuned out to the coming elections, after six years of burgeoning federal spending and inaction on key issues, such as immigration,” said former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr.

“The Republican Party has become the party of the government status quo,” he said, “and conservatives see no reason to reward it with their votes.”

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