Pro-Family Politicians Must Go on the Offense to Win

Governor Tom Wolf, D-Pa., speaks during a 2016 campaign rally for then-Vice Presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., at the Boys & Girls Club in Lancaster, Pa., on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016.

By Maggie Gallagher Published on June 1, 2017

The Keystone Report recently published a poll. It was commissioned by the American Principles Project. (Full disclosure: I am an APP senior fellow).

It showed two things. First, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) is in trouble. Second, there is a huge opportunity for social conservatives to go on offense against the Left’s transgender extremism.

Just 35% of Pennsylvania voters favor Wolf; 43% rate him unfavorably. On the second point, 71% said they were less likely to vote for Wolf — that is, once they learned about his transgender extremism.

That’s the good news. Here’s the great news: Once they hear of his transgender policies, 51% of Democrats say they are less likely to support Wolf.

This is a huge political opportunity for social conservatives.

Modern political technologies are amazing. They tell us which soft Democrats and independents are most likely to switch their vote when they learn of a candidates’ left wing extremism on social issues. Cutting edge programs then let us go directly to these persuadable soft Democrats at a reasonable cost.

The Democratic party pushes these deeply unpopular policies. Not because they’re popular. They aren’t. But because they can count on Republicans to avoid the issue. They can count on social conservatives to keep on bringing a knife to the gunfight.

The North Carolina Debacle

We saw this failure to seize the opportunities in the 2016 election. One great hero fought back against Obama’s outrageous bathroom transgender mandates. That hero was North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory.

The Left used their control over free media to pummel McCrory.

The Left called in chits from the Chamber of Commerce to the NCAA. They framed the issue as acceptance vs. “hate.” Liberals didn’t just try to turn out their base. They invested millions in attacking McCrory. They trotted out a variety of issues. But the “bathroom bill” (HB2) was what goaded them.

The LGBT political community is smart. It beats our social conservative leaders almost every time. And not by attacking religious liberty or touting same sex marriage. Instead, gay activists pour money into whatever issue works best. See the now-classic Atlantic article “They Won’t Know What Hit Them.” The voters may not understand why they lost. But the political class understands all too well. And Republicans steer clear of anything of which the Human Rights Campaign disapproves.

The Democrat Base Isn’t the Electorate

I see the great North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest making the case that voting for HB2 is not what defeated Pat McCrory. He notes that 87 of 89 legislators who voted for HB2 were re-elected. The public is not obsessed with the same priorities as the liberal Democratic donor base.

As recently as a July 2015 AP poll, a third of Democrats and 59% of Independents said religious liberty should trump gay rights where they conflict.

All true. But the Left targeted McCrory because of HB2. The Left understands that not all elections are equal. They do not have to defeat everybody who voted for HB2. They merely have to show that they can cut down any social conservative leader who pokes his head out. Republican elected officials don’t want to be in former Pat McCrory’s shoes. Democrats see no problem in being in newly elected Gov. Roy Cooper’s shoes.

One CEO told Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, “We just don’t want the Human Rights Campaign coming against us.” Ditto Republican politicians.

The Left’s Issues Are Losers

None of this was inevitable. Social issues can be used to persuade soft Democrats and Independents to vote against social liberals.

For example: As recently as a July 2015 AP poll, a third of Democrats and 59% of Independents said religious liberty should trump gay rights where they conflict.

In 2016, the American Principles PAC spent $75,000. It tested whether soft Democrats and Independents in North Carolina could be persuaded to vote for Pat McCrory on the transgender issue. The test results suggested a spectacular missed opportunity.

APP PAC identified more than 483,000 persuadable soft Democrat voters. These voters moved plus 28 points toward McCrory when exposed to the message.

It would have taken about $2 million to message these voters thoroughly. Or just $1 million to reach them adequately. That’s a drop in the bucket. Social conservatives lavish much more on futile or outdated strategies.

If our test results held, we could have flipped 135,240 North Carolina soft Democrat votes. McCrory would have won a resounding victory. But if social conservative donors were able to flip just 10% of these persuadable Democratic, McCrory would still have won.

We Could Have Been a Contender

The return on investment in terms of policy and culture would have been immense. Both Republicans and Democrats would today have a very different set of political incentives. Policy changes would be easier to achieve. Democrats’ would start being wary of social issues. More Republicans would be willing to speak up. The public conversation would be less one-sided.

(A side issue: How to make at least one corporation pay for entering a social controversy unrelated to its core business interests. That would be enormously helpful.)

The 2018 Pennsylvania Opportunity

There was other potential good news. The APP Poll revealed: When likely voters asked if they “support individuals using the facility that corresponds with their sex at birth or the facility with which they individually identify,” 56% chose “birth sex” and just 31 percent “personal identification.”

Democrats want to avoid the LGBT bathroom issue because it is political poison. Will social conservative donors let them?

Only 7% of Pennsylvania voters support using puberty blocking drugs in children with gender identity issues. Some 59% opposed it.

Ducking Democracy

Democrats know these issues are losers with voters. So they want bureaucrats to impose their policies. They can’t pass a ban on LGBT discrimination democratically. So they want the state Human Rights Commission to declare that state bans on sex discrimination now cover gays too.

Pennsylvania Family Institutes’ Michael Geer has pointed out:

This proposal wouldn’t change the law — only the commission’s “guidance” on the matter. But this new “guidance” would mean the law would be enforced as if it had changed. This guidance comes on the heels of repeated failures to accomplish the same outcome through the legitimate way of changing laws — through the legislative process and with the consent of the governed.

The Democrats want to avoid the issue because it is political poison. Will social conservative donors let them? Investment in direct electoral politics pays huge dividends in terms of culture and policy — but only if we play the game to win. To date, we’ve barely been playing at all.

We Only Pretend to Fight

In 2014, pro-family social conservatives invested $251,633,730 in tax-deductible 501(c)3 efforts (excluding pro-life efforts). How much was spent on direct political engagement, counting both state and federal organizations? $2,484,359. That’s a 100-to-one ratio of doing politics by indirect versus direct means. Social conservatives can’t get much out of politics because we aren’t really in politics. We’re sort of dancing around the edges of it. That’s where we feel comfortable. And why we lose.

We’ve barely built the donor networks and political institutions to hold back the Left or to protect traditional believers. Instead we have relied over and over again on inferior, ineffective political strategies.

We’ve invested in:

  • 501c3s
  • public-interest law
  • academic conferences
  • video messaging (very important)
  • voting scorecards (not very effective)
  • get-out-the-vote efforts (marginally effective) and
  • pastor organizing.

The impact of pastor organizing is unknown and probably unproveable. But it is consuming huge amounts of our political money.

The Road Not Taken

What have social conservative and religious liberty donors not done? We have not invested in actual political institutions, like the highly effective pro-life Susan B. Anthony List.

The pro-life movement proves the advantages of going on offense. State legislatures are passing reams of new pro-life legislation, while conscience protections stall. President Trump has proven far more willing to please the pro-life community than to deliver on religious liberty promises. Even the Democrats are beginning to argue they must de-emphasize abortion.

Here’s the bottom line: Don’t rely on “turn out the base” strategies.

Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois is the only Illinois Democrat outside of Chicagoland. She won a close election in a district Trump won. And she is telling Democrats the key to victory: Say as little as possible about abortion and gun control: “When she does talk, she talks as much as she can about jobs and wages and the economy and as little as she can about guns and abortion and other socially divisive issues — which, for her, are ‘no-win conversations,’” she recently explained to Politico. This is an amazing turnabout from just five year ago. That’s when Mitch Daniels, Mike Pence and many other establishment conservatives were arguing that Republicans must mute the life issue to win nationally.

How We Can Win

Here’s the bottom line: Don’t rely on “turn out the base” strategies.

Don’t just threaten that our base will stay home. Don’t just whisper to hard core GOP conservatives. Hard core Republican voters tend to turn out. They tend to be messaged on multiple issues by multiple groups. That makes the effectiveness of any one social issue hard to demonstrate. Democrats are not afraid of our base.

Instead, persuade even 3% of Democrats to vote Republican in a close election. You know, the way Donald Trump did. Doing so would make social conservatives far more politically influential. And far more culturally influential as well.

Will social conservatives seize the initiative to build a more effective political strategy in Pennsylvania in 2018?

Having failed to seize the North Carolina opportunity, social conservatives start from a political hole of declining influence. But it doesn’t have to stay this way. We dug this hole, and we can climb out. 2018 is another opportunity for social conservatives to begin the hard work of organizing politically and directly. To stop eating crow and crumbs. To win for ourselves a real place at the table.

We have to begin somewhere. To do something new. We must abandon our pessimism and take our case to soft Democrats and independents.

To defend ourselves and America, social conservatives need a political offense.

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