More Pragmatic Christian Right Gets Poll Results -- Mainstream Message Creates Broader Appeal For Conservatives
The pastor of the Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell keeps his barometer of political progress tucked in his back pocket.
It's a list of candidate endorsements Joseph Fuiten hands out to his 1,200 parishioners on request. In 1992, less than a third of his favored candidates survived the September primary. This year, he says 84 percent of his choices won.
"The Christian Right can never elect anybody by ourselves. . . . But I do think our motivation level is higher than before because the country is going to hell," says Fuiten, who registers new voters and passes out absentee-ballot applications at his church. "For me to wake up the next day to see my people winning, it's a sign of the times. The tsunami is coming."
Christian conservatives, the most energetic grass-roots component of the Washington Republican Party, are feeling buoyant about the Nov. 8 election.
Not only did voters put Democrats on alert in the primary, but where Republicans were running against each other, more conservative candidates often won.
In part, that's because in a primary where some legislative candidates needed fewer than 4,500 votes to advance, the religious right made unmatched efforts to get voters to the polls.
Their splashiest victories of the recent past - the Rev. Pat Robertson's triumph in the 1988 Washington GOP presidential caucuses, and passage of a 1992 state party platform so hardline that it denounced witchcraft and yoga - have often turned to dust at the polls in November.
Drawing from those lessons, Christian conservatives have broadened their message and become more pragmatic.
Before this year's primary, the state chapter of the Virginia-based Christian Coalition - a leader in the effort - distributed 400,000 voter guides through hundreds of churches and religious bookstores statewide.
Churches in Southwest Washington passed out thousands of a different guide produced by the Christian Coalition's national headquarters, instructing voters on how to write in the name of state Sen. Linda Smith. Smith, a Clark County Republican, won the 3rd District GOP primary handily.
The coalition, founded by Robertson, held training and recruiting sessions last year and encourages conservatives to give their political message broader appeal.
They don't emphasize traditional hot-button issues like abortion or a voucher system for private schools. They talk about tax cuts and curbing the role of government, property rights, opposition to gun-control and dismantling education reform.
"It's impossible to sort out what Christians are doing from the rest of the right wing," says veteran Democratic strategist Elden Rogers of Olympia. "They were working as Republicans in the right election with the correct message."
Several GOP primary winners - including Smith and state Rep. Randy Tate, congressional candidate in the 9th District - have strong roots in the religious right. But just as important to activists like Fuiten is the increasingly conservative tenor of other Republican winners.
In 19 GOP primaries in which "pro-family" candidates endorsed by former GOP state Sen. Ellen Craswell squared off against moderate Republicans, 12 of them won. Craswell is a venerated figure among social conservatives and publishes recommendations in a newsletter widely distributed in evangelical churches. She said there were an unprecedented number of Christian candidates this year.
In 10 seriously contested Republican primary races in King County, seven of the winners had 100 percent ratings from the Christian Coalition.
To get that rating, they must support restrictions on abortion except where the life of the mother is involved. They also back school vouchers or tax credits for parents with children in private schools, oppose gay-rights legislation and oppose gun control.
Will it hold till November?
Skepticism remains among Democrats and moderate Republicans about how well these candidates will fare in November, when they must attract a broader vote.
But some religious-right activists insist their mainstream message and new alliances will help in a year when anti-government sentiment is surging.
Some women's groups and middle-of-the-road GOP groups are starting to sound warnings about the future of Washington's Initiative 120, passed in 1991 and guaranteeing a right to abortion.
Several Democrats, adopting their party's national strategy, are also citing Christian ties - sometimes the most slender of connections - as evidence their opponents are radical extremists.
"They're smoking their issues in tax and spend. What they want is a theocracy," said George Zander, chairman of the King County Democratic Central Committee.
"That's why I fight it. They're relentless and they won't stop."
Republicans, meanwhile, have blasted the Democrats for "Christian-bashing," though some of the sharpest attacks during the primary actually came from two moderates recruited by the state Senate Republican organization.
In the Shoreline-North Seattle area, 32nd District Senate candidate Kae Peterson chastised fellow Republican Brian Wahl for proclaiming ". . . it was time to put God back in government." In South King County's 11th District, state Senate candidate Bill Viall mailed a brochure proclaiming that his opponent, Jerry Guite, was supported by those who want to "teach creationism in our schools."
Both Peterson and Viall lost.
For now, members of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, a group of moderate Republicans, say they'll back their party's nominees but might campaign against a few they believe are too extreme.
In the past, moderates reacted to events like Robertson's caucus victories as if the party had been hijacked. But last summer, David Welch, state director for the Christian Coalition, and moderates negotiated a truce that kept debate over explosive social issues out of the GOP state convention in Bellingham.
Still, the alliance is fragile. Fiona Buzzard, the GOP's Thurston County chair, quit her post this week after drawing criticism from members of her own party, including Welch, for calling Linda Smith "anti-woman" and part of a radical right wing.
The Christian right says its new face looks much like that of 1st District House candidate Mike Sherstad, a Bothell developer.
He has little name recognition and no political experience. But backed by anti-abortion activists and local developers, he ran solo in the GOP primary and outpolled Democratic state Rep. Linda Johnson.
He says it's not religion inspiring him to run but frustration with big government that intrudes in schools, families and local communities.
If asked, Sherstad will tell you his views on abortion: He would vote to make it illegal except to save the life of the mother and would work for a parental-consent law and a prohibition on public funding of abortions.
But it's not a centerpiece of his candidacy and he doesn't often mention backing of the Human Life PAC, which fought Initiative 120.
Some candidates and conservative groups assert that religion should play no role in electoral politics but make a somewhat different appeal to Christian voters.
Wahl, the 25-year-old state Senate candidate from Shoreline, sent a fund-raising letter in August saying that Christians were "fighting a spiritual warfare" and that "God's people must get involved to reestablish the Godly principles upon which this nation was founded."
IMPAC, a state political-action committee whose board includes Craswell and evangelical pastors, notes in its literature that the "righteous" are not in power. It solicited new members last week by noting the primary results "give us the opportunity to change the makeup of the 1995 Legislature by electing Bible-believing people."
Allying with populist causes
A key to a broader voter base, says Welch, is alliances with populist conservative causes. Christian conservatives, for example, have been at the forefront of stirring local parent opposition to "outcome-based education" - a key part of recent school reforms that they believe will teach children values best learned at home.
Some fear the new pragmatism leaves them in danger of becoming another GOP constituency group.
Undseth worries Christian candidates might temper their votes and distance themselves from controversial issues once they get into office.
Says Undseth, "To me it's gamesmanship, which I don't particularly like in politics."
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