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Are Democrats pulling back on faith outreach?

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; A03

If 2008 was the year Democrats finally got religion, will 2010 be the year the party loses it again?

This is the worry among some religious progressives, who worked to transform the image of Democrats from wary -- or even hostile -- toward religion to a party that hired faith consultants, advertised regularly on Christian radio and featured candidates, including Barack Obama, who spoke openly about their relationship with God.

These days, the Democratic National Committee's faith staff of more than a half-dozen has dwindled to one part-time slot. Its faith issues Web site led this week with greetings for Passover (which was in March) and Rosh Hashanah (which was in September).

Faith consultants who once had dozens of clients did not play a role in high-profile Democratic losses in the Virginia gubernatorial race in November and in the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat of the late Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts in January. And there was little visible new faith outreach in last week's Democratic Senate primaries, according to some party officials.

"Nothing jumps out," said Patrick McKenna, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, where Rep. Joe Sestak defeated party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter in a race that revolved around the recession and political authenticity rather than abortion or other faith-based issues. "I think in this economic climate, I feel like people are in some ways moving away from that kind of conversation."

With Democratic control of Congress at stake in this fall's general elections, some party religious activists are dismayed by the loss of momentum.

"It's a mystery to everyone what happened to Democratic faith outreach in the last year," said Rebecca Sager, a Loyola Marymount University professor who writes and teaches about the religious progressive movement. "There is sort of this, 'We worked so hard and made so much progress, and 2008 seemed like this great year, and then what happened?' "

In previous election cycles, some major Democratic wins were credited in part to spending by national Democratic organizations on faith outreach and the deliberate recruitment of candidates who framed policy positions in terms of religious morality. The most notable victories included the election of Timothy M. Kaine as governor of Virginia in 2005, a slew of anti-abortion congressional Democrats in 2006 and Obama, who captured more churchgoing voters in 2008 than any other Democratic presidential candidate in a decade.

The Democrats didn't make believers out of everyone. Some religious leaders and Republicans always viewed the Democratic appeal to churchgoers as little more than window dressing -- much the same way that many African American leaders and Democrats dismiss GOP efforts to reach out to minority voters.

And the Republican Party still has a far more extensive infrastructure to connect with religious voters, especially evangelical Christians.

It has databases filled with tens of millions of e-mail addresses as well as long-standing ties to religious broadcasters and conservative religious groups such as the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

"You've had this effort in the Republican Party to really focus on religious voters that goes back to Ronald Reagan," said Brian Jones, a strategist who was once communications director for the Republican National Committee. "It's one thing to say, 'Hey, let's have a faith-based program.' It's easier said than done. It's not done in one or two or three political cycles."

Changes

When Obama took office, he made a point of expanding the faith office established by President George W. Bush, which includes branches in a dozen federal agencies and a core staff that communicates with faith leaders about policy issues. The office's director, Joshua DuBois, declined to comment on Democratic political outreach but said the White House is in frequent contact with faith leaders, a key way to stay connected to religious voters.

Kaine, who chairs the DNC, and other party leaders say the decrease in paid faith staff reflects a change in how the party does outreach -- not a shift away from religious voters. The party, at the behest of the White House, has reshaped how it reaches out to all constituency groups and has opted to expand its network of grass-roots volunteers and shrink its national staff of organizers who were in the past broken down by race and religion.

Although a party spokesman said its faith outreach staff had been dismantled when Obama took office, Kaine said that a staff member who also does African American outreach has been assigned to oversee faith as well but had been on a medical leave. The party will be hiring more faith staff and crafting a faith outreach plan as the fall election season gets closer, said Kaine, who rejected the idea that the effort was diminishing on his watch.

Kaine, a Catholic, is known for speaking about his religious beliefs, an attribute that helped him overcome unpopular positions among Virginia voters, such as opposing the death penalty. "There has never been the elimination [of faith outreach] under a guy who was picked partly because of his faith background," Kaine said.

The DNC isn't the only Democratic group that has changed its faith outreach in the wake of the presidential election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent more than $82,000 on faith outreach in the 2008 elections, but a spokesman couldn't name any expenditures thus far for special elections in 2009 or races this year.

The Eleison Group, the primary group doing faith consulting for Democrats, worked on more than 40 campaigns in 2008, including many congressional and gubernatorial races. Although the group wouldn't talk about specific clients, it has no 2010 national campaign contracts at the moment.

Getting the message out

Some faith progressives said there is plenty of time before November for the party to prove that it has changed its culture. They contend that Democrats have created relationships with a wider range of faith groups, particularly white evangelical Protestants, who in 2008 expressed increased confidence in the Democratic Party to deal with the country's problems but now give the GOP a more than 2-to-1 edge. "I know the comfort level we were trying to create in our members seems to be there," said Rep. James E. Clyburn, (D-S.C.), who founded a faith-discussion group among Democratic lawmakers after "disheartening" conversations in 2004 with religious voters who considered Democrats anti-faith.

Some Democrats have always had strong relationships with faith communities, but the party has had to work hard to change its reputation for being dismissive of certain faith groups, religion in general, and those who oppose abortion or gay marriage on moral grounds.

"People would say, 'How can you be a Democrat and a Christian?' " Clyburn said.

What's at stake, advocates say, is the success of policy goals shared by many religious voters, including climate change, immigration reform and anti-poverty programs.

"Faith outreach isn't just respecting people enough to sit down with them but having something to say about our core sense of right and wrong. Are we speaking from a place of conviction?" said Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), well known for his faith outreach. "Everyone in the Democratic Party understands that we've had major setbacks on outreach, and messaging on faith is just one of them."

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