Florida election a test of the religious right's strength

Matt Towery
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Posted: Aug 31, 2006 12:01 AM
Florida election a test of the religious right's strength

Next Tuesday, Florida will likely follow the same pattern we have seen developing around the nation this midterm primary season. An uninspired and dispirited electorate will, in huge numbers, fail to vote. That will mean quirky results in some important races, and a major test for the continued viability of the so-called Christian Right as a force in Republican politics.

While most polls have shown Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist leading his race against Florida's Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher by at least 20 points, our InsiderAdvantage survey, conducted for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, suggested that Crist was leading, but not by a huge margin.

Unlike the other surveys, ours showed a substantial percentage of undecided voters. This is consistent with the results of polls we have conducted in other southern states, where these undecideds actually turned out to be non-voters. When this happens, races get tricky because only the most hard-core voters go to the polls.

Crist is a handsome and articulate candidate who would have broad appeal to voters in the November general election. But, for whatever reason, he felt compelled several weeks ago to declare that he favored allowing civil unions of same-sex partners in Florida. Within a matter of days, famed Republican strategist/ad expert Mike Murphy had mysteriously signed on with Gallagher's then-failing campaign.

Anyone who has been around GOP politics on a national level over the past few decades and knows the power that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has in his home state could easily add two plus two and figure out that Murphy would never take on a long-shot campaign if he felt by doing so he would be offending Bush, who is officially neutral in the race. More importantly, why take on a losing cause?

The answer: It might not be such a losing proposition. Gallagher, who has had a long and often controversial career in state politics, decided long ago to hitch his star to the conservative and religious-right segments of his party. In two televised debates, he attacked Crist for his positions on abortion, the cost of alleviating classroom overcrowding, civil unions and a host of other conservative red-meat issues.

His campaign TV ads basically say that Crist is not a "Jeb Bush conservative." It's a very polarizing effort, which, in a normal year for voter turnout, would likely backfire and send moderate Republicans flocking to the polls to defeat a candidate with such a "far-right" message.

But this isn't a normal primary season. All around the country, we've seen the electorate ignore primary elections. And an extremely low turnout gives organizations and voting blocs such as the religious right the opportunity to prove whether they truly have the organizational skills in place to ignite voter passion.

Understand, this election could go in one of two directions. Consider the case in Georgia, the ninth most populous state in America. In the recent Republican primary election there, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed went down in flames in his bid to become lieutenant governor.

Reed lost in a low-turnout primary. Did the Christian and religious-right vote disappear in that race? Maybe. But the argument can also be made that Reed was carrying all the baggage of a close association with controversial and soon-to-be-sentenced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

What happens in Florida if the most motivated voter is the hard-core religious conservative vote, which has shown at least anecdotal evidence of being the core of the GOP electorate? This year's Florida primary will occur not only after a brief encounter with a powerful storm, but on the day following Labor Day.

My guess is that voter turnout may not even reach the 20-percent mark. If that happens, you can throw out all the polls and rest assured that the battle to carry the GOP mantle to replace Bush will be a jump ball. And that ball will fall on the side of either mainstream Republicans turning out to elect the more moderate Crist, or the hard-core religious right proving its might by putting candidates more to their liking on the general election ballot.

Once again, Florida becomes the test case for the future of one of the major political movements of our time.