The nation’s social conservatives may have ceded center stage to economic conservatives and the “tea party” movement for the midterm elections, but they’re not keeping quiet.
Even as the fiscal tea party movement grabs the headlines, social conservative leaders are getting out their own message to selected audiences via e-mail, newsletter and pulpit - trying to ensure their followers flock to the voting booths in November.
Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly, a leading voice for pro-life social conservatives for decades, sends a monthly report to subscribers, authors a weekly column and airs a live radio show. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins is hosting his annual Values Voter Summit this week in Washington, with conservative stars such as Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican; and Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity on the agenda.
American Values President Gary Bauer said that “in the middle of the Barack Obama-Harry Reid-Nancy Pelosi recession, it is understandable that economic concerns would be the main focus of debate.”
“But it is a mistake for party leaders to run from cultural issues as well as ignore the large gap between the values of left-wing Obama elitists and conservative Middle America,” he said.
With polls pointing to major losses for Democrats this fall, conservatives of all stripes seem united in focusing on what they call President Obama’s “can’t-do” economic performance as their best shot at success on Nov. 2.
“Any campaign should address the issues that are of most concern to the voters now and which are most likely to lead to success,” said James Bopp Jr., a Republican National Committee member from Indiana and a founder of the RNC’s Conservative Caucus. “Economic and fiscal issues are the most pressing now, so it is appropriate that they are in the forefront of Republican candidates’ issues.”
But social issues haven’t disappeared altogether.
Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller received money and support from tea party activists and former Gov. Sarah Palin in his stunning upset of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in last month’s GOP Senate primary in Alaska. But Mr. Miller also credited the fact that an abortion-related parental-consent measure was on the ballot, drawing social conservatives to the polls.
“There’s no doubt that Lisa Murkowski’s pro-abortion views had an influence on this election,” Alaska Family Council President Jim Minnery told the Anchorage Daily News after the vote.
Despite their low profile, social conservatives have not been silent on specific issues and causes this year. Social conservatives actively opposed Mr. Obama’s nomination of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, as well as his decision to lift President George W. Bush’s restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Recent court rulings calling into question the stem-cell policy and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays serving in the military could make both sleeper issues in close races this fall.
While largely holding their tongues, Mrs. Schlafly and others do worry about letting a preoccupation with the economy and growth of the federal government go too far in crowding out moral issues.
“Yes, I believe there has been a disturbing silence by some leaders in the GOP concerning social issues,” said Steve Scheffler, an RNC member from Iowa. “Without question, jobs and excessive spending by the Democrats are paramount in many voters’ minds. But social and economic issues are tied together.”
Mr. Scheffler said candidates put social issues “on the back burner at their own peril and threaten the GOP’s potential to be a majority party. History shows us that activists will surely abandon candidates who pooh-pooh social issues.”
Social conservatives have shown the muscle to put the GOP over the top in past elections - or to sink the party’s hopes by staying home. During the past 30 years, social conservatives have shown increasing political activism, largely siding with the one major party that unequivocally opposes abortion and same-sex marriage in its platform.
Meanwhile, some Republicans fear the tea party’s “freedom agenda” will generate cracks over time in the GOP coalition.
“There is suspicion among our social-conservative base that the new tea party/libertarian Republicans might soon view restrictions on abortion as they would any government proscription of private conduct,” said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating.
“Some of my law enforcement friends have expressed similar views about a worrisome second look at drug laws,” Mr. Keating added. “Perhaps it is fringe thinking and a fringe worry, but it is still a worry.”
In fact, many libertarian-minded Republicans - among them Senate nominee Rand Paul of Kentucky - have raised questions about the wisdom of the country’s strict laws on drug use.
The wariness of social conservatives surfaced in a brief public dust-up between the Family Research Council’s Mr. Perkins and Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana, after Mr. Daniels suggested this summer that the country should “call a truce on the so-called social issues” to focus on economic recovery.
The fierce - and largely unexpected - culture clashes in recent days over the proposed mosque near New York City’s ground zero and a Florida pastor’s threat to burn copies of the Koran show the continued potency of social issues, even in a time of economic difficulty.
But top Republican strategists still say the party’s smartest bet is to keep the focus on the economy.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, sided with Mr. Daniels in the argument over how much prominence social issues should have in the fall campaign.
He told reporters at a breakfast last week that even in his home state, where pro-life sentiment is strong, “that ain’t going to change anybody’s vote this year because people are concerned about jobs, the economy, growth and taxes.”
The RNC’s Mr. Bopp said no one should get the impression that social issues are being ignored - it’s just that the message is being delivered more discriminatingly.
“These are winning issues for Republicans, and there are many targeted efforts, by candidates and others, to get the message on social issues to those who are concerned about them,” he said.