Imagine you're a religious right activist, used to being a serious player within the Republican party, the kind of person candidates court and party chieftains huddle with. You've done well at making sure that just about every politician in your party has the right position on your issues. You may not always get everything you want as quickly as you want, but you know that you don't have to waste energy fighting rear-guard actions within the GOP.
But then bad things start to happen. We spend a couple of years talking about nothing but the economy and budgets, ignoring your favorite issues, and some in the party suggest that the real culture war isn't your culture war, it's an economic one. A couple of your favorite candidates get a little too candid with their views on rape, and end up losing at the polls, leading some influential strategists to suggest that the party needs to shift its focus away from your issues. Then one of your party's senators comes out in support of same-sex marriage, and even though it's only one senator, all the pundits agree that he won't be the last, and it's only a matter of time before your party abandons its insistence on "traditional" marriage entirely. Then some party bigwigs come out with a report on how the GOP can win future elections, and it says nothing about you and your issues. There's talk about how libertarian the party should become and how it can appeal to minority groups, young people, and women, but all that makes you feel pretty left out.
As McKay Coppins reports, that's leaving religious right activists more than a little peeved. But he puts his finger on a big reason that some in the party feel free to encourage a move in a leftward direction:
If Republican officials feel confident that they can soften the party's stance on social issues without any real risk of losing their religious base, it may be because the Christian right hasn't presented a united front in nearly a decade. Not since 2004, when Evangelicals swarmed to the ballot to support a marriage amendment in Ohio, and re-elect George W. Bush, have those voters managed to coalesce around a winning presidential candidate.
In the 2008 Republican primaries, they were split between a culture-warring Mitt Romney and the insurgent Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, and neither won. Then, in 2012, conservative Evangelicals vacillated between a bevy of Republican candidates, allowing the well-financed Mormon guy — who had dropped the social agenda rhetoric and was now just talking math — to navigate his way around them and grab hold of the nomination.
You can get a religious right leader to threaten that his people will stop voting unless they get what they want, but nobody believes that. There's no question that the religious right is still a core part of the Republican coalition, but the problem they face is that national Republican leaders aren't afraid of them anymore, or at least those leaders are less afraid of them than they are afraid of continuing to alienate young people and minorities.
That isn't to say, though, that the religious right won't continue to wield great influence. Just as they don't have the ability to move en masse, the party leadership can't just snap its fingers and change the party's image. A national party is made up of thousands of people with their own agendas and ideas. Karl Rove can say, "No more Todd Akins," but that doesn't mean there won't be more Todd Akins, spouting off retrograde ideas and getting lots of attention for them, because there probably will. Reince Priebus can say, "Let's chill with the anti-gay stuff," but that won't stop Rick Santorum from running for president again if he wants to. The party can try to move away from the religious right, but the religious right is woven so tightly into the party at every level that it will be almost impossible to do.