Christian conservatives exert sizable influence on the state's presidential caucuses -- but don't count Newt out just because of his past
More conventional wisdom that needs dispelling this primary season: The adulterous and thrice-married Newt Gingrich will be unable to attract evangelical voters in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
While it's true that the former House speaker ultimately may fail to achieve the redemption he's seeking from Iowa evangelicals, it is also a fact that he has been quietly building bridges to that important segment of the caucus-going electorate for more than a year now. And, he not only built the bridges, he paid for them. And that could turn out to be Gingrich's greatest secret weapon against his rivals in the Republican caucus in January.
Gingrich's financial ties to Freddie Mac and the mortgage market, the ethanol industry and big health care have gotten lots of well-deserved scrutiny lately, but less well analyzed is a nonprofit he started called Renewing American Leadership (ReAL), which was devoted to issues the religious right cares about. The organization was financed by donations solicited by Gingrich and run by a trusted political operative, Rick Tyler, who later went to work for his presidential campaign, according to multiple news accounts. ReAL poured $150,000 into the successful campaign by Iowa social conservatives in 2010 to oust three Iowa Supreme Court judges, who were targeted after the high court struck down a state ban on same-sex marriage.
The recall effort was led by Bob Vander Plaats, a Sioux City businessman and former gubernatorial candidate, and it relied heavily on contributions from out-of-state conservative organizations like Gingrich's.
Now, Gingrich's relationship with Vander Plaats is paying dividends. Vander Plaats currently heads a group called Family Leader, whose imminent endorsement of a Republican candidate for president is expected to carry great weight with evangelical voters, who make up roughly 60 percent of participants in the caucus. Not surprisingly, Vander Plaats has had flattering things to say about Gingrich lately, telling The Des Moines Register recently that "Newt blew it out of the park" in a focus group made up of evangelicals.
Some Christian conservatives in Iowa are unhappy with the injection of Washington-style log-rolling into their local politics. A group calling itself Iowans for Christian Leadership distributed a letter this week citing a past extramarital affair by Gingrich and telling Vander Plaats, "We have serious concerns that your endorsement may be guided, not by prayer and conviction, but by personal benefit and prior relationships. Of which, would seem to lead you toward Newt Gingrich and, needless to say, he is not an acceptable choice among Christians."
But if all goes as Gingrich hopes, there will soon be a lot of discussion in Iowa about the Christian tenet of forgiveness, and he will be solid with evangelicals come Jan. 3.
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