Power Play: Religious Right Flexes Muscle In Race For GOP Leader

We've actually come to the point where a leading contender to head the Republican Party is a former employee of one of the nation's largest Religious Right organizations.

So, the Religious Right is dead, right? Its time has finally passed, and the movement has no more strength. It's yesterday's news, a historical relic, correct?

Not quite. It turns out the Religious Right might still have some kick left. In fact, its foot soldiers have been hard at work and just might have enough clout to pick the next head of the Republican National Committee.

The Washington Times, a conservative Washington, D.C., daily owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon that is well connected to Religious Right groups, reported yesterday that a number of high-profile Religious Right leaders have endorsed Kenneth Blackwell for the slot.

Blackwell, the former secretary of state for Ohio, sought the Buckeye State governor's mansion in 2006 but lost to U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland. After that, he went to work for the Family Research Council (FRC) as "senior fellow for family empowerment."

The Times reported that Blackwell has "won endorsements from such religious conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly, Tim LaHaye, James Dobson and Tony Perkins."

In a message pushing Blackwell, FRC President Tony Perkins said the ex-Ohio official's "extensive campaign experience and commitment to conservative principles will serve the RNC well. Ken is the clear choice in this race and why I am proud to support him for RNC chairman."

So we've actually come to the point where a leading contender to head the Republican Party is a former employee of one of the nation's largest Religious Right organizations. Yet we're being told the Religious Right's power is on the wane?

But wait, there's more. Six men are vying for the GOP's top slot. Three of the others – Michael Steele and Katon Dawson and Chip Saltsman – have ties to the Religious Right as well.

Steele speaks every year at the FRC's "Values Voter Summit" in Washington, now the nation's premier Religious Right event.

Dawson, a South Carolina native, has in the past worked with the Christian Coalition, which retains influence in that state. In 1999, I heard a Dawson surrogate named Robert Cahaly speak to South Carolina Christian Coalition members, excoriating Henry McMaster, then head of the South Carolina GOP. Cahaly outlined Dawson's plan for ousting McMaster and appealed for Coalition help. The gambit failed in 2000, but two years later, Dawson was in control of the party. As The Times noted, Dawson is "widely admired among social conservatives."

Saltsman was the campaign manager of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who based much of his campaign on appeals to the Religious Right.

So, of the six men seeking this job, four of them have some type of connection to the Religious Right and one of them actually used to work for a Religious Right organization. Despite all of the talk about moderation within the GOP, it sure sounds to me like a candidate closely aligned with the Religious Right stands a good chance of becoming the head of the Republican Party. I don't think we've seen the last of these folks yet.

The Republicans will meet at the end of the month to pick their leader. Stay tuned.