Religious Right Very Much Alive in Tomorrow’s Elections

From Virginia to New York to Maine, the religious right is playing a key in tomorrow’s off-year elections. The reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.

President Obama might have “turned Virginia blue” last year, but old habits die hard there. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell, a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University, is holding onto a double-digit lead over the lackluster Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds. Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for Attorney General, holds a comparable lead over the Democrat Steve Shannon. Both Republicans make the religious right proud; no need in Virginia, as in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, for it to back a third party candidate because the Republicans are too darn liberal.

Every other election cycle or so, the religious right makes noises that it might have to form a third party of its own. Although the likelihood of success for Christianist third party is nil, this “values voters” grandstanding is not an empty threat. It moves GOP candidates, particularly in the primaries, to the right. They can’t win without the Christian right money or ground troops.

In Virginia, McDonnell and Cuccinelli are solid culture warriors. In NY-23, the religious right and tea party backing of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman forced Republican (and pro-choice, pro-gay marriage) Dede Scozzafava to drop out of the race and endorse Democrat Bill Owens. If Hoffman wins — and probably even if he loses — the showing of New York’s third party may well galvanize the religious right to solidify its tea party alliance even further with efforts to embrace third party candidates or at least back primary challenges where Repubilcans are insufficiently doctrinaire.

In Virginia this summer, it was thought that McDonnell’s 1989 Regent graduate thesis would be his downfall. In it, the then-35 year-old McDonnell posited that working women and feminists were “detrimental” to the family, that the 1972 Supreme Court legalization of contraceptive use by married couples was “illogical,” and called for policy favoritism for married couples over “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.” Yet, in no small part aided by Deeds’ ineffectiveness, McDonnell has managed to downplay the culture war issues and portray himself as the reasonable technocrat who will solve Virginia’s fiscal and transportation problems. Fox News today gleefully predicts a landslide.

Cuccinelli, the attorney general candidate, is ahead despite bucking the McDonnell strategy of trying to make his reactionary social views look like a mere graduate school dalliance. As a state senator, Cuccinelli supported bills that would have granted legal rights to fetuses at conception and enacted prohibitive regulations on abortion clinics designed to drive them out of business. He opposed a bill that stated that contraception is not abortion. Cuccinelli’s culture war coup de grace, though, was this gem: “My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that. … They don’t comport with natural law. I happen to think that it represents (to put it politely; I need my thesaurus to be polite) behavior that is not healthy to an individual and in aggregate is not healthy to society.”

In endorsing Shannon, the Virginian-Pilot editorial board wrote, “To put it politely, Cuccinelli’s election would bring embarrassment to Virginia, instability to the state’s law firm and untold harm to the long list of people who don’t fit his personal definition of morality.”

The embarrassment that may befall Virginia might well be duplicated in Maine. Polls there show a dead heat on a referendum to overturn the recently-enacated gay marriage law. The reactionary anti-equality National Organization for Marriage (NOM) has set its sights on Maine just like it did on Cailfornia’s Proposition 8 last year.

In New York, it’s exactly those “personal definitions of morality” that drove Scozzafava to drop out of the race and endorse Owens. After religious right luminaries, including Sarah Palin, got behind Hoffman, Scozzafava sank in the polls. After she endorsed Owens yesterday, the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List promply used Scozzfava as Exhibit A for the further marginalization of moderate Republicans. “When a GOP candidacy is not based on fundamental conservative values, the party and the principles are inevitably betrayed and critical moments . . . . These principles are not only right, they are the path to electoral victory,” the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, said in a statement. SBA List was one of the first religious right groups to back Palin’s candidacy last year; its spokeperson told me that the group was familiar with Palin because of the work of its state-level activists in Alaska. Surely they’re grooming other candidates in the same mode.

NY-23 is a conservative district. There is a special election there tomorrow because the district’s previous representative, John McHugh, became Secretary of the Army. His nomination to that post sailed through the Senate, despite a religious right record against church-state separation, including a disregard for ongoing problems with proselytizing in the military. His votes for, say, allowing the Ten Commandments to be posted in public schools and government buildings, didn’t bother his constituents, or the Democratic Senators who have apparently become so accustomed to the religious right’s presence on Capitol Hill that even his record on military religious freedom didn’t move them to question his suitability for a Pentagon post.

Even if the religious right doesn’t get its way tomorrow, it has had its way in all of these races.