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Religious right didn't fade away in congressional vote, defying pundits

Posted: Friday, November 17, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) -- The religious right has not faded, as some pundits suggested before the election, but instead turned out voters who helped Republicans maintain their majority in the House, analysts say.

''It wouldn't be fair to say they're in the driver's seat but they're in the car, and grabbing the steering wheel from time to time,'' says Steve Benen, research coordinator with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that opposes the Christian conservatives.

The religious right was ''quietly working beneath the radar,'' said another critical group, People for the American Way.

According to lists compiled by both friends and foes, here's the record for House candidates who had movement support:

--In contests for open seats, 18 won and three lost.

--Among incumbents, 70 won and two lost. (Movement efforts to defeat nine incumbent House members all failed.)

There were some setbacks for high-visibility Senate candidates backed by the movement:

--Though a half-dozen incumbents won, voters ousted Spencer Abraham in Michigan, Rod Grams in Minnesota and John Ashcroft in Missouri.

--In challenges against incumbents, George Allen of Virginia won but there were defeats for Mack Mattingly in Georgia and William Redmond in New Mexico.

--In bids for open seats, Nevada's John Ensign won but Florida's Bill McCollum and Nebraska's Don Stenberg lost.

''The House membership has increasingly tended to reflect the religious composition of the constituency,'' observes Furman University political scientist James Guth. And many districts contain hefty numbers of conservative Protestant voters.

Guth says America's religious voting blocs have now ''reached a degree of stability.'' The big change is that white Protestants, always Republican in the North, have strongly shifted that way elsewhere.

In the presidential race, Guth thinks the question is not why states like Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia abandoned Al Gore this time but ''why were they so slow in turning Republican?''

Nationwide exit polling showed 14 percent of voters labeled themselves religious right members, and they gave George W. Bush lopsided support.

The rest of the Republican religious coalition consisted of solid majorities among white Protestants as a whole and among weekly worshippers of whatever faith, plus a slight edge among white Catholics -- a once-Democratic bloc that is now a key swing vote.

Gore scored with non-religious Americans (61 percent), Jews (79 percent) and the largely Protestant blacks (90 percent).

National organizations like Christian Coalition are declining, says Guth, but that's because the movement has become so important within the Republican Party. ''You don't need pressure from the outside when you're on the inside. They aren't fighting their way in, like they were 10 or 20 years ago.''

Gary Bauer, the losing GOP presidential candidate who chairs the Campaign for Working Families PAC, says organizations come and go but ''there's no sign that voters who decide in a significant way based on their faith views are becoming a smaller part of the electorate.''

He contends that moral values were ''the defining difference'' in this election.

That claim gets partial agreement from a movement opponent, the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance. He thinks there was a ''moral outrage'' vote this year that extended well beyond the borders of the religious right. ''It wasn't about Gore, but Clinton.''

Perhaps responding to that, Al Gore made a more concerted appeal to religious voters than any Democrat of the past century, Benen says, even before he picked the religiously outspoken Joseph Lieberman as his running mate.

Another notable aspect of campaign 2000 was that Muslims and Arab-Americans made an unprecedented bid for leverage and endorsed Bush.

Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine, helped advise the Bush campaign and says it targeted active Catholic churchgoers in 12 pivotal states, developed a Catholic mailing list with 1.3 million names, met with bishops and visited Catholic schools. The payoff: In Florida, he figures Bush got 106,000 more Catholic votes than Republican Bob Dole got in 1996.

But in several key states that wasn't enough to overcome the labor unions that rallied Catholic Democrats, he says.

Hudson has ''anecdotal, not systematic, evidence of an unprecedented outspokenness by bishops'' on abortion this year. But that was counteracted by bishops' opposition to capital punishment, which Bush was identified with even though Gore held the same policy.

As Hudson sees it, there's a clear split between active churchgoing Catholics, who are Republican, and nominally Catholic Democrats. He also sees a moral split among Catholics, with one side stressing issues like abortion and voting Republican and the other emphasizing the plight of the poor and voting Democratic.

Religious conservatives were also active in state proposition campaigns.

California and Michigan soundly defeated proposals for private school vouchers, which the religious right supported. Among issues conservatives opposed, Maine narrowly rejected legalizing doctor-assisted suicide, and gambling issues in various states had mixed results. Maine, Nebraska and Nevada showed conservatives' strength in the defeat of gay rights issues.

End Adv for Fri, Nov. 17

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