Nov 07, 2002

Candidates supported by the Religious Right won a significant number of congressional and gubernatorial races in 2002, and those victories are likely to translate into increased political power for the fundamentalist Christian movement, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the Religious Right will be looking for political payback for its work on behalf of Republican candidates nationwide.

"With so many Religious Right-backed candidates winning this year, the movement will have a new set of powerful allies who will be pressured to do the Religious Right's bidding," Lynn said. "Americans who value church-state separation will have to be more vigilant than ever about protecting the First Amendment."

AU noted in its report that there is no evidence that the Religious Right was the key factor in deciding any key races. Exit poll results suggest voters backing GOP candidates did so to reflect support for President George W. Bush, not allegiance to the Religious Right. Nevertheless, the election results will benefit the movement because lawmakers will be inclined to support the groups and leaders that backed their campaigns.

AU's report focuses on competitive federal and state races where the Religious Right threw its support behind a candidate. Before the election, AU's research staff identified key races where the candidate received donations, endorsements and other significant support from the movement.

Candidates who garnered Religious Right backing won many competitive races at virtually every level. According to the report, in races for U.S. Senate or governor, allies of the Religious Right won their elections in 11 of 17 races. Candidates with Religious Right support did just as well in House races, where they won 16 of 25 races. (Two of the races considered for this report are still being contested.)

One important trend noted in AU's report was the tendency for voters to support Religious Right-backed candidates who avoided closely aligning themselves with the movement and campaigned as moderates.

Candidates such as Senator-elect Jim Talent in Missouri, for example, received strong political support from the Religious Right and held positions consistent with the Religious Right's agenda. Talent, however, went out of his way to position himself as a "centrist" candidate and was rewarded by voters with a victory.

In contrast, candidates who received extensive Religious Right support and unabashedly ran on an overt Religious Right-style platform were often rejected by voters.

Candidates such as Tony Perkins in Louisiana embraced the Religious Right's support and boasted of being the movement's favored candidate. Yet even in a conservative southern state, Perkins finished an embarrassing fourth in the race for U.S. Senate.

"Candidates who were with the Religious Right but didn't talk about it fared better on Election Day," noted AU's Lynn. "Ironically, the Religious Right will have greater political power and influence even though there is no evidence that voters were endorsing the movement's agenda."

Another trend was the Religious Right's tendency to focus its resources on campaigns in which the groups' favored candidates were likely to win. There were some congressional campaigns where the Religious Right backed a sentimental favorite despite long odds -- Ronnie Greer's race in Wisconsin's 2nd District, for example -- but on the whole, the Religious Right was predictably savvy. Groups spent money in races where their candidate was viable and the contributions could make the biggest difference.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.