GOP's Hold on Evangelicals Weakening
Friday, October 6, 2006
ANOKA, Minn. -- Lynn Sunde, an evangelical Christian, is considering what for her is a radical step. Come November, she may vote for a Democrat for Congress.
Sunde, 35, manages a coffee shop and attends a nondenominational Bible church. "You're never going to agree with one party on everything, so for me the key has always been the religion issues -- abortion, the marriage amendment" to ban same-sex unions, she said.
That means she consistently votes Republican. But, she said, she is starting to worry about the course of the Iraq war, and she finds the Internet messages from then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) to teenage boys "pretty sickening." When she goes into the voting booth this time, she said, "I'm going to think twice. . . . I'm not going to vote party line as much as to vote issues."
Even a small shift in the loyalty of conservative Christian voters such as Sunde could spell trouble for the GOP this fall. In 2004, white evangelical or born-again Christians made up a quarter of the electorate, and 78 percent of them voted Republican, according to exit polls. But some pollsters believe that evangelical support for the GOP peaked two years ago and that what has been called the "God gap" in politics is shrinking.
A nationwide poll of 1,500 registered voters released yesterday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of white evangelicals are inclined to vote for Republican congressional candidates in the midterm elections, a 21-point drop in support among this critical part of the GOP base.
Even before the Foley scandal, the portion of white evangelicals with a "favorable" impression of the Republican Party had fallen sharply this year, from 63 percent to 54 percent, according to Pew polls.
In the latest survey, taken in the last 10 days of September and the first four days of October, the percentage of evangelicals who think that Republicans govern "in a more honest and ethical way" than Democrats has plunged to 42 percent, from 55 percent at the start of the year.
Here in Minnesota's conservative 6th Congressional District, the loosening of the GOP's hold on religious voters is helping Patty Wetterling, an antiwar Democrat, run an unexpectedly close race against Republican state Sen. Michele M. Bachmann, who has made opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage her signature issues.
This week, Wetterling became the first Democrat in the country to air a television advertisement about the Foley scandal.
"It shocks the conscience. Congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman . . . ," the commercial said, adding that Wetterling is "demanding a criminal investigation and the immediate expulsion of any congressman involved in this crime and coverup."
Wetterling is best known as an advocate for missing children. Her 11-year-old son, Jacob, was abducted in 1989 and never found. The uproar over Foley's sexual correspondence with teenage employees of Congress has played into her political strength.
"This is something we all watched with churches years ago, where they didn't do anything. Congress has no excuse -- they know better," she said in a telephone interview.