In Ohio, Democrats Show a Religious Side to Voters
By David Kirkpatrick, The New York Times, October 31, 2006
COLUMBUS, Ohio, Oct. 30 -- Representative Ted Strickland, an Ohio Democrat and former Methodist minister, opened his campaign for governor with a commercial on Christian radio vowing that "biblical principles" would guide him in office.
In his first major campaign speech, Mr. Strickland said "the example of Jesus" had led him into public service. He has made words from the prophet Micah a touchstone of his campaign.
Ohio, where a groundswell of conservative Christian support helped push President Bush to re-election two years ago, has become the leading edge of national Democratic efforts to win over religious voters, including evangelicals.
Explaining his hope to win conservative Christian votes, Mr. Strickland said, "I try to make a distinction between the religious right -- people who have a conservative theological perspective -- and the political religious right, who seem to have as their primary motivation political influence."
Polls show a notable decline since 2004 in support for Republicans among white evangelical Christians, who make up about a quarter of the electorate. The slip in Ohio has been especially steep. In 2004, 76 percent of white evangelical Christians in Ohio voted for Mr. Bush over the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry. But in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 53 percent of the same voters approved of the president’s performance, and 42 percent disapproved.
Democrats, meanwhile, have stepped up efforts to lure religious voters in states including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. But Mr. Strickland has capitalized more than anyone else on evangelical disaffection from the Republicans, helping to give him a lead of more than 20 percentage points in the race.
Mr. Strickland faces a Republican opponent, J. Kenneth Blackwell, who speaks just as openly about his evangelical faith, staunchly opposes abortion rights and same-sex unions and carries the endorsement of several nationally known Christian conservatives. But in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, Mr. Blackwell led Mr. Strickland among white evangelical voters by only three percentage points, which is within the margin of error.
"I have talked to lots of folks who say this is the first time they are not voting Republican," Rich Nathan, pastor of the Vineyard Columbus Church, one of the largest in the state, said in an interview Sunday after a service. Mr. Strickland, he said, was "making headway."
Still, dozens of evangelicals interviewed at Vineyard Columbus and another megachurch, Grace Brethren, said they remained wary of overtures from Democrats, even Mr. Strickland. Many said they felt more repelled by the Republicans than attracted to the Democrats.
"The Republican is lying, and the Democrats are secular," said Joshua Porter, a video producer attending Vineyard Columbus. "Who do we vote for?"
Robert Oser, an usher at Grace Brethren, said Mr. Strickland’s liberal positions undercut him. "The Democrats are trying to change their spots," Mr. Oser said, "but their spots are still there."
No one brought up the New Jersey Supreme Court decision to recognize some form of same-sex unions as a factor on Election Day.
Only Mr. Oser offered the explanation for grass-roots malaise that Christian conservative groups in Washington usually suggest: that the Republicans had not done enough about abortion or other social issues.
Instead, some said they were disturbed by corruption in the Republican-controlled Statehouse here and in the Republican-controlled Congress. And many pointed to the Ohio economy, budget cuts for schools and social services and the war in Iraq.
Lawrence Porath, a parishioner at Grace Brethren, said he called himself a staunch Republican two years ago and helped turn out voters as a county leader of the Christian Coalition. But a week before this year’s midterm elections, he said he was not sure whom to vote for.
"I feel like our president has really not given us the complete truth from the beginning, on the war, or on anything," Mr. Porath, a commercial real estate investor, said in an interview after services on Sunday.
Mr. Nathan of Vineyard Columbus said such disillusionment was common. "How is it that we evangelicals have become the strongest constituency for war of any group in America?" he asked.
When he asked that question from the pulpit, Mr. Nathan said, people stand up and cheer.
Other Democratic candidates here are also reaching out to evangelicals and other Christians. Until recently, Representative Sherrod Brown, a Lutheran who is running for Senate here, seldom spoke publicly about his religious views.
This year, however, Mr. Brown’s advisers discovered that after visiting Israel a decade ago he had written to his daughters and a Jewish friend about the emotions he felt reading aloud from the Sermon on the Mount at the site where Jesus is believed to have delivered it. Mr. Brown’s campaign quickly incorporated his private words into messages sent to Christian voters.
In an interview, Mr. Brown said he now talked about his faith "a bit, not a lot." A campaign aide then arranged a second interview with Mr. Brown’s wife, Connie Schultz, who said her husband tithed, listened to Lutheran hymns to relax and prayed before each campaign debate.
Mara Vanderslice, an evangelical Protestant who worked on Senator Kerry’s presidential campaign, has opened a consulting firm, Common Good Strategies, based here, to help Democrats across the country reach religious voters and, she said, to help make the party more welcoming to them.
In addition to working with Mr. Strickland and Mr. Brown, Ms. Vanderslice is consulting with Democrats in Alabama, Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
The Michigan Democratic Party consulted with 500 members of the clergy, including many evangelical Christians, and revised its platform. The revision included a dedication: "The Common Good. The best for each person in the state. The orphan. The family. The sick. The healthy. The wealthy. The poor. The citizen. The stranger. The First. The Last."
At a speech this month at a Lutheran college here, Mr. Strickland put a liberal twist on the common conservative Christian theme about secular forces trying to squeeze religion from the public square.
"There are those in Columbus and elsewhere who argue that the biblical mandates to love your neighbor and to work for justice are meant only for individuals and have no application to the political sphere," Mr. Strickland said. "They dismiss the Democrats and those religious leaders who claim that our faith requires us to insist that governments and government leaders -- not just private citizens -- seek justice, love, mercy, and humbly work to help the least, the last and the lost in our society."
In an interview, Mr. Strickland said that Christian conservatives had a right to their interpretation of the Bible, but that "it is an anemic interpretation, at best.
Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values and a prominent Christian conservative organizer here, accused Mr. Strickland of using his faith. "He abandoned his theology degree," Mr. Burress said, "and all of a sudden he has found that it is a good political toy."
Still, Mr. Burress commended the Democrats for at least competing for conservative Christian voters. And, he added, "if he is successful in breaking into that bloc of voters, it is going to be a very interesting 2008."
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