The Republican Party has undertaken a massive plan to engage millions of churchgoing Christian voters who did not vote in 2012. The GOP's director of faith engagement calls them, "the largest, most underappreciated, under-tapped voting bloc in all of American political history."
Recent events, including the Supreme Court's ruling that sanctioned gay marriages nationwide and the jailing of a Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, have sparked religious voters' anger with elected officials. The Republican Party senses an opportunity that did not exist four years ago to capitalize on the heated passions and mobilize more social conservatives for the 2016 election.
There are two schools of thought on why the GOP failed in 2012. Some conservatives coalesced around the idea articulated and amplified by talk-radio firebrand Rush Limbaugh that several million voters stayed home in 2012. Limbaugh believes the Republican presidential nominee did not reach out to conservative voters and fight for their values.
Others tout the GOP's 2012 election autopsy report, titled the "Growth and Opportunity Project," which strongly recommended that the GOP "has to stop talking to itself" and must instead "communicate directly with African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Pacific Americans."
While the GOP has prominently emphasized its attempts to fix the problems identified in the autopsy report, it appears to favor an "all of the above" solution that includes listening to its right flank. Behind the scenes, the Republican Party has placed a newfound emphasis on Christian voters for 2016.
Chad Connelly left his post as chairman of the South Carolina GOP in 2013 to join the Republican National Committee as its director of faith engagement, a position created with him in mind. He said the idea came from a conversation with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus about how to avoid repeating the 2012 elections' debilitating losses.
As the RNC's point-person on religious voters, he has crisscrossed the country seeking to motivate the 40 to 50 million Christians who he estimates did not vote in recent elections. But he does not go directly into churches and instead targets pastors, pleading with the church leaders to register their congregations to vote.
"I'm talking about your Christian responsibility to vote biblical values. I'm not hanging the elephant around my neck," Connelly said of his efforts. "I'm not telling them they must vote Republican."
Connelly believes the GOP needs to "run up the score" among Christian conservative voters, and noted that "issues win elections." With more than 12 months remaining until Election Day, the Republican Party believes religious liberty and the politics of marriage can serve as animating issues that build support among the party's base voters.
"If I can motivate the pastor to speak biblical issues, I mean think about it whether it's marriage or life, or Israel, protection for Israel, biblical economics, debt, all those issues are covered in the Bible. And they all, it just so happens, the Republican Party is right on 'em," he said.
In the little more than two years since he started his work, Connelly has spoken to 52,000 pastors, priests, and faith leaders, and traveled to 38 states. He expects his team will grow to include six to 10 national staffers, alongside individuals spread throughout the states. Thus far he has concentrated on 11 potential battleground states that Republicans hope to paint red in 2016: Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada.
The heart and soul of the GOP
As Connelly looks to make room for social conservatives in his party, he runs the risk of antagonizing candidates and voters in various states with a different outlook. One group that may disagree with an added emphasis on social conservatism is the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization that advocates for LGBT issues within the GOP.
The group held its annual Spirit of Lincoln Dinner in the basement of the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., in October, and the crowd mirrored several other GOP audiences in that it appeared overwhelmingly male and white. Several notable Republicans looking to make in-roads with the gay community attended the event, including Grover Norquist, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon, Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana, and Rep. Joe Heck, who is running to replace outgoing Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Aside from the occasional confrontational joke — a speaker from the South referred to his home as a place "where they think being gay is a choice and being fat is genetic" — the group appeared focused on areas of compromise with other conservatives and libertarians. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker missed his keynote speech because of a leg injury, so former president of the World Bank Paul Wolfowitz took his place. Wolfowitz applauded the crowd for its moral courage, saying, "What could possibly take more courage than to come out openly as a Republican?"
"With so many critical issues facing this country and the world it is important that we put this issue behind us so that it doesn't divide the country at a time when American unity is so important and we face enormous challenges both at home and abroad. And that's particularly important I believe for the Republican Party," Wolfowitz told the crowd. "I believe if our party becomes to be seen as opposing basic rights and freedoms of gays and lesbians, we will not only lose that community — some will say we've lost already I hope not, obviously not in this room — that we'll also lose a much larger community, particularly in the younger generation for whom it seems that we are abandoning the party and its commitment to human freedom."
In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Heck, a physician and Iraq War veteran, disagreed with the notion that gay marriage is a divisive issue for the GOP and explained his decision to attend the event as an attempt to "build the party stronger."
While running for re-election to Congress in 2012, Heck said he believed that marriage is "between one man and one woman," but that he would abide by the courts' decisions and that gay marriage "is not hurting anyone." His stance appeared to reflect the people of Nevada, who took action in 2000 and 2002 to amend their state's constitution to ensure that the definition of marriage remained limited to between a man and a woman. Following the Supreme Court's ruling this summer in Obergefell v. Hodges, which sanctioned gay marriages nationwide, Heck appears to be looking to reach new voters wherever they congregate.
"I don't think this is an issue that necessarily fractures Republicans," Heck said. "There are certainly going to be individuals that have certain opinions, but to stereotype or typecast the entire Republican Party as having a specific outlook or having a specific perspective I think does the party a disservice and just further serves to divide the party."
Nevada's senate election could prove crucial to Republicans' efforts to maintain their majority, and also factor as a swing state in the presidential election.
Christian millennial voters
As Republicans such as Connelly and Heck look to defy stereotypes and make their party more inclusive in vastly different ways, large shifts in public opinion during President Obama's second term present new hurdles and opportunities for them to reach voters.
Millennial voters and practicing Christians have grown more concerned about religious freedom since Obama's re-election in 2012, according to research from the Barna Group, a Christian polling organization based in California that Connelly said informed his work. The number of practicing Christians in the United States varies widely, and doubt exists about the credibility of people self-identifying as faithful. But the Pew Research Center found 71 percent of adults, or 173 million Americans, identified as Christian in 2014.
The percentage of practicing-Christian millennials who think "religious freedom in the U.S. has grown worse in the past 10 years" now exceeds the percentage of Christian "Boomers," whom are likely the millennials' parents, according to the September 2015 Barna Group survey. In 2012, approximately 32 percent of Christian millennials thought religious freedom had grown worse in the previous 10 years. Now, 55 percent of Christian millennials think it has become worse.
The percentage of practicing-Christian millennials who say they are "very concerned about religious freedoms becoming more restricted in the next five years" exceeds the percentages of Christian "Boomers" and Christian Generation-Xers who think the same thing, according to the Barna Group. And the percentage of Christian millennials who are "very concerned" about forthcoming restrictions on religious freedom has nearly tripled since 2012.
Likewise, the percentage of all millennials who are "very concerned" about additional restrictions on religious freedoms in the next five years has increased 10 percentage points since 2012, to 25 percent.
"Over the last three years, younger Christians seem to have realized the incredible tension involved in issues of religious liberty," said David Kinnaman, the Barna Group's president, in a statement upon release of the polling data. "Perhaps they are more aware of this tension because of their presence on social media, where things can get personal. They see the debates about things like same-sex marriage and Kim Davis happening in real time. Younger Christians are recognizing the implications for their future — what perhaps once felt like something that would only affect clergy and Christian leaders, now feels like it could have a bearing on life for ordinary citizens."
Kim Davis is the Kentucky county clerk whose refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples landed her in jail. Republican presidential candidates have since cast her actions as those of a conscientious objector worthy of high praise, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz flocked to her side as she was released from state custody. Her story won her a brief appearance before Pope Francis during his visit to the United States, and she received the "Cost of Discipleship Award" at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C.
Along the way, Davis experienced a jailhouse conversion and changed her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, which is a decision that she said influenced her entire family. Davis told Reuters that she decided to switch her party affiliation after talking with her husband about how the Democratic Party had long since left them behind. But Davis, who has been married four times, may not be the GOP's ideal mascot on social issues.
On the day Davis announced her decision to become a Republican, House Speaker John Boehner revealed his intention to vacate his seat in Congress. This prompted conservatives' concerns that Boehner would work with Democrats and cut a deal with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to secure all of Obama's agenda before he quits public office. The commotion led South Carolina Democratic politician Bakari Sellers to declare on Twitter, "We hereby trade you Kim Davis for Speaker Boehner."
Whether the Republican Party wants to make just such a trade, choosing a political novice over the status quo, has become a defining theme of the GOP race for the White House where outsider presidential candidates have ruled the roost. Regardless of what choice the GOP makes now, its ability to leverage voters' anti-incumbent mood could determine its success in 2016.
"There are no perfect people, therefore there are no perfect parties," Connelly said, "but our party sure has been right a lot more than the other one on all those issues that people in the church care about."