House Republican leaders are increasingly nervous that the Christian Coalition, which helped propel the party into power over the past decade, may be unable to muster an effective grass-roots effort in next year's critical congressional elections.
In fact, Republicans are so concerned about the coalition's viability that they have begun channeling resources to other grass-roots organizations to mobilize the kind of conservative voters they hope will preserve the Republican majority in 2000.
In October, the National Republican Congressional Committee gave $250,000 to the National Right to Life Committee, a leading antiabortion group, and $500,000 to U.S. Family Network, a conservative lobby that works closely with a former aide to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
Other Republican groups have made similar contributions in the past. But the timing of the congressional committee's donations so far in advance of next year's elections is unusual and reflects what GOP officials described as an effort to energize the party's conservative base.
Many Republicans are convinced that Democrats, with the aid of organized labor, have been more effective in mobilizing their core supporters in recent elections and say their party must do more if it is to retain its congressional majority and regain the White House next year.
"We need to turn out every Republican voter we can," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said in a recent interview. "Those are folks that generally would be with us."
Democrats are already arguing that the NRCC contributions are an effort to evade campaign finance restrictions, but the campaign group's deputy chairman, Dan Mattoon, said the committee "always complies with the letter and spirit of the law."
Republican officials acknowledge that the new money for conservative groups is aimed at filling a void left by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, which has been an integral part of the GOP's grass-roots operation, distributing tens of millions of voter guides to churches the weekend before elections.
While it prevailed in September in a costly lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission, the group remains mired in debt and is planning to cut staff as part of an upcoming move from Chesapeake, Va., to the D.C. area. It has lost almost every top official within the past year, including President Don Hodel, Director of National Operations Chuck Cunningham and Vice President for Government Relations Randy Tate.
"We've been frustrated and disappointed and really sorry that our conservative base has not been energized in the past two cycles to support our candidates. Maybe we need to do something on our end to enhance their participation," Mattoon said, adding that while the Christian Coalition is likely to distribute voter guides, it may not be as active as it has been. "There's going to be a need to fill a vacuum here. There is a need to build a coalition to elect Republican candidates."
Robertson said in an interview yesterday that no other conservative religious group could rival the coalition's upcoming get-out-the-vote activities.
"There isn't any other operation I'm aware of that has a network with the churches," Robertson said, adding that the group is already preparing voter guides. "I think by the 2000 elections we're going to be a significant player as always."
Ed Buckham, a former DeLay chief of staff, was instrumental in obtaining the NRCC's donation to U.S. Family Network, which was first reported in the newspaper Roll Call last week. Mattoon said that while NRCC officials were initially unfamiliar with U.S. Family Network, they supported it based on Buckham's track record.
Buckham, a consultant to the group, said U.S. Family Network will encourage voters to lobby on such issues as the use of fetal tissue, tax cuts and abortion. He added that the group has not decided whether to conduct a voter registration drive but that it will inform voters about how Congress is voting on issues affecting families.
National Right to Life President David O'Steen, whose group has received money from the Republican National Committee in the past, said the new donation "will be used for the general pro-life activities of the National Right to Life Committee. It will not be used to encourage anyone to vote for or against any candidate."
Over the past year, Buckham and DeLay have emphasized the importance of enlisting more religious conservatives in the GOP's battle to retain control of the House. "[Only] 20 percent of congregations are registered to vote. That's outrageous," DeLay said in an interview this year. "If you just get to a church in your district, you're going to win. All that takes money, by the way."
The Republican Majority Issues Committee--a group headed by former DeLay fund-raiser Karl Gallant and for which Buckham has raised money--is also looking at how to target religious conservatives. Buckham and Tate discussed this fall whether any major Christian Coalition donors would be willing to support the RMIC, which is aiming to raise as much as $25 million for get-out-the-vote activities next year, and Tate said RMIC officials asked whether they could access the coalition's nationwide list of pastors. The coalition regards the list as proprietary, and Tate did not grant the request.
Democrats, who filed an FEC complaint last week based on the NRCC's relationship with groups such as U.S. Family Network and the RMIC, have decried these kinds of transfers before. Democrats are citing an October federal district court decision that found the California Democratic Party violated election law by giving an outside group $709,000 in 1992 and 1993 to conduct a voter registration drive.
But GOP attorney James Bopp Jr., who represents the RMIC, the National Right to Life Committee and the Christian Coalition, said the NRCC's recent donations were not aimed at a specific purpose. "They're not contracting with some group to get out the vote," Bopp said.