Politics & Policy

The All-Important Race for Iowa’s Evangelicals Is Wide Open

Ted Cruz speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition summit. (Scott Olson/Getty)

‘The Evangelical voting bloc is a dead thing,” Iowa Republican activist Tom Stockebrand says, a glint of mischief in his eye. A top state party official nods in agreement. “If you didn’t see it tonight, it’s 2015 now. Those days are gone.”

He’s speaking as attendees stream noisily out of a packed auditorium in Waukee, Iowa, at Point of Grace church, the site of this year’s Faith and Freedom Coalition summit in the state. It’s nearly 10:00 p.m., and for the past five hours around 1,000 conservative Evangelicals have sat on raised bleachers, listening to nine potential White House contenders make their pitches.

“This is an Evangelical invite, and did you feel that there was one candidate that the Evangelicals, as a bloc, were going for?” Stockebrand asks. “That’s something the national press can salivate over, but it isn’t going to happen.”

Social conservatives represent nearly 60 percent of GOP caucus-goers in Iowa, and have an outsize influence on who captures the first-in-the-nation contest. But unlike the last two cycles, when Evangelical favorites Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum were buoyed by their support, this time around, the competitive GOP field could split social conservatives among as many as half-a-dozen candidates. That’s in part because the priorities of Evangelicals have shifted in the age of Obama. Abortion and gay marriage remain prominent. But Obamacare, economic over-regulation, and a ballooning national debt have prompted a newfound concern for fiscal issues — a development that bodes poorly for the former Iowa victors.

RELATED: Bobby Jindal Wows Iowa Evangelicals

Some hoped that Saturday’s gathering would help narrow the field ahead of next February’s Republican caucus. In that case, it was expected that familiar faces Huckabee and Santorum, with their back-to-back wins, would have an edge on the rest of the field.

Obamacare, economic over-regulation, and a ballooning national debt have prompted a newfound concern for fiscal issues — a development that bodes poorly for the former Iowa victors.

But while tables manned by each candidate’s eager supporters lined the church’s walls, the vast majority of attendees remained noncommittal, regardless of whom they may have supported in the past.

“We can’t necessarily look back at the previous races and say that’s the template for this one,” says Iowa representative Steve King, a fixture at GOP presidential campaign events across his state. The congressman explains that past performances by Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012 mean little in the present circumstances.

RELATED: Rubio, Walker Trade Shots on Foreign Policy in Iowa

“I think they probably learned that the base they earned when they were winning the Iowa caucus isn’t as strong,” King says. “That sense of loyalty doesn’t just transfer four years later. You have to go back and win it again.”

There’s an opening for new candidates to make inroads because Evangelicals are newly focused on fiscal issues. “There’s a big movement away from big government,” says Luke Loftin, a social conservative volunteering at Saturday’s event. While Huckabee is now downplaying his big-spending record as governor of Arkansas, Loftin says he’s still seen by many Iowa evangelicals as “a little bit more progressive” than other candidates in the field.

Santorum’s problems are even more pronounced. In his remarks, the former Pennsylvania senator pushed for increasing the minimum wage. “It didn’t resonate,” says Drake University professor Dennis Goldford. He says Santorum should drop his populist economic message if he wants to compete in Iowa.

RELATED: Santorum Falls Flat with Iowa Evangelicals, Despite 2012 Caucus Win

The vacuum left by the two former champs is palpable.

#related#In fact, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who polls at just 2 percent in Iowa and barely breaks 1 percent nationally, has the potential to upend the Iowa race. His speech, which focused heavily on his own journey to faith, was the best received of the night, eliciting the only standing ovation of the entire evening from the Christian crowd. State party organizers noted that Jindal has worked hard to move toward the evangelical coalition in recent months. On Saturday, that work appeared to pay off.

But if there’s a slight favorite among this crowd, it’s Ted Cruz. The Texas senator lit up the Christian audience this weekend with a barn-burner decrying “liberal fascism” and the criminalization of faith he sees sweeping the country.

“Cruz seems to fire them up,” Susan Murphy, a Polk County Republican activist, says of her Evangelical friends. Sherill Whisenand, the Polk County GOP chairwoman and a member of the party’s state central committee, agrees. “If you were going by the applause meter — instead of the BS meter — you would have to go with Ted Cruz tonight,” she says.

More mainstream candidates can’t be counted out, either. Despite a moderate reputation on abortion and gay marriage, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s name was on everyone’s lips.

“He seems to have the favor of the establishment, but . . . it doesn’t sound to me like he comes from that wing of the party,” says Representative King, noting that Iowa’s conservative grassroots are warming to their neighboring governor. Others at the conference — particularly those in party leadership positions — characterize Walker as a candidate who could unite the GOP’s fractured and disparate wings.

In fact, Iowa’s Evangelical electorate seems open to nearly all of the potential Republican candidates, even those some observers felt would face hostility. Before the event, one longtime Iowa campaign operative told National Review that Kentucky senator Rand Paul’s decision to attend the conference was “surprising, if not a little courageous,” given his father’s poor showing with the same demographic during his two presidential runs.

Iowa’s Evangelical electorate seems open to nearly all of the potential Republican candidates, even those some observers felt would face hostility.

But despite misgivings over Ron Paul’s foreign-policy views, Iowa’s social conservatives are happy to give his son the benefit of the doubt. Although he didn’t dwell long on social issues or his own faith, Paul’s speech was well received. “I didn’t expect to hear that out of this crowd,” Whisenand says, calling the raucous cheers that came from the crowd for the senator’s unorthodox foreign-policy stance “bizarre.”

And while hawks in Washington rip into Paul on national-security issues — John McCain recently called him one of the worst candidates for president – Evangelicals in Iowa seem to view the senator differently. “I believe he has taken a more realistic approach to America’s need to support our allies, including Israel,” says Iowans Supporting Israel organizer Mike Schreurs, comparing Paul favorably to his “isolationist” father.

All this diversity has some social conservative leaders worried. National Journal reported in mid-April that the Council for National Policy, a group headed by the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, is pushing Evangelicals to coalesce early behind a single candidate. Members of the council worry a fractured Christian voting bloc will allow the dominant establishment candidate — in this cycle, former Florida governor Jeb Bush — to suck up donations and leave the conservative wing of the party gasping for breath.

But almost no one at the Faith and Freedom summit believed rallying behind a single standard-bearer was a good idea, even if it were possible. “I’d say, ‘Guys, if you have a special insight, I’d like to know what it is,’” says congressman King, explaining that the best vetting process has always been getting the candidates in front of voters.

Most other Iowans agreed, saying they’d never fall in line behind one candidate without first hearing from all of them — preferably three or four times, at least. “Quite frankly, I think it’s a little bit, I don’t know if I would say insulting, but it is not trusting grassroots people to make their own decisions,” says Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Facing a field of candidates universally described by attendees on Saturday as the best in decades, Iowan Evangelicals are feeling spoiled for choice. Though the electorate has changed and old favorites are drawing competition from fresh faces, February’s caucus is anyone’s game.

– Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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