Onward Christian Voters

Before former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee decided not to run for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, he launched a site for followers to pray for him. Most candidates check the polls and see where their fundraising is. Huckabee (he would have us believe, at least) asked God. But he's not an elitist about his connection to the Almighty. You have one, too, he says: "I humbly ask that you would join me in prayer as I seek to discern His will for my life." Better than voting, you can help this guy discern God's will!

This, and his announcement on his Fox News program Saturday night that his "heart says no" to another presidential run, was a perfect example of Huckabee's unique way of putting a spiritual spin on what is undoubtedly a calculated, political, and even a financial decision.

While the GOP base has long favored God-talk from its candidates, Huckabee would have been the candidate most beloved by the religious-right foot soldiers even as many in the Republican establishment reviled him. His decision leaves devout social conservatives without a leader, and who -- if anyone -- will replace him in that role is now under debate. But Huckabee bowing out also hints at growing fissures among the religious-right's grass roots and between them and the larger Republican Party.

Huckabee's blend of traditions from the old core of the religious right (dominated by Southern Baptists) and growing charismatic/Pentecostal movements -- Huckabee uses the term "Bapti-costal" to refer to himself -- helped give him a surprise victory in Iowa at the start of the 2008 election cycle. It would seem natural, then, that Huckabee could have the upper hand for 2012.

Well, not really. While Huckabee's God talk has suited evangelical voters, his actual habit of governing has riled elite party members. Some quarters of the Southern Baptist Convention consider him too much of a moderate. In his home state of Arkansas, many of his fellow Republicans have dismissed him as a liberal masquerading as conservative and mocked what they viewed as his "preacher's mentality" of caring about government aid for the poor, particularly his support for programs that provided prenatal care for undocumented immigrants and granted children of undocumented immigrants eligibility for state college scholarships. And their dislike -- indeed resentment -- of Huckabee's ascendancy helped convince many religious-right elites to hold off on an endorsement early in the race.

That rankled some Huckabee supporters. One devotee, Filipe Dacosta, told me at the time that Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council wouldn't see "another red cent" from him. In the end, James Dobson, then still at Focus on the Family, gave Huckabee his belated, and apparently ineffective, imprimatur. After John McCain, whom the religious right despised, won the nomination, Paul Weyrich, an architect of the New Right, tearfully regretted his own failure to endorse Huckabee to a gathering of conservative elites. But it was too late.

The anti-Huck sentiment hasn't ended, though. Glenn Beck ripped into Huckabee last month, accusing him of being a "big-government guy." Beck was reading right off the anti-Huckabee talking points, the same ones that effectively put the kibosh on Huckabee's nomination in 2008.

Some of Huckabee's supporters smell a rat. Out in force at the 2010 Values Voters Summit, HuckPAC volunteers believed that he was "kneecapped" by his rivals labeling him a closet liberal on fiscal issues, and maintained that Fox News coverage was biased against him. Huckabee supporters also claim that Fox falsely reported that Huckabee wasn't campaigning in the Florida GOP primary, causing him to lose in that critical state.

One might think that Huckabee's disdain for Republican elites -- he regularly rails on the country-club Republican set -- and his outsider status would make him the Tea Party favorite, too. But the early characterization of the Tea Party as a spontaneous uprising external to the GOP is clearly disproven: it is made up of Republican Party establishment, and Huckabee's supposed "big government" liberalism might stand in his way now even more than it has in the past.

But Huckabee's evangelical fans must have someone to vote for. Doesn't the GOP need the votes of evangelicals? Yes. Huckabee, though, reeks of what embarrasses the GOP about this part of its base. His Fox News show has all the panache of a 1970s variety program and the ambience of a public-access talk show. He holds extreme views on abortion, LGBT issues, and separation of church and state -- views that are increasingly mainstream in the Republican Party but will shock needed independent and moderate voters. That's why the GOP wants a nominee who can dog-whistle the evangelical base without the pastor's uncompromising delivery.

The problem for the GOP is that religious-right activists have spent the last three decades working to produce Christian-right candidates just like Huckabee, and the Republican Party has cynically cultivated their efforts. Huckabee may have decided to forego another presidential run, but candidates very much like him continue to rise up through the ranks, displeasing party elites. The GOP, it seems, has to be careful what it prays for.

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