Politics

01.17.12

Vote Rigging Alleged as Christian Right Decides to Back Rick Santorum

At a Texas meeting, religious conservatives pledged to support Santorum for the GOP nomination, but the attempt at unity is already fraying, with some attendees alleging the process was rigged in the ex-senator’s favor.

The attempt to unify the Christian right behind a single presidential candidate is already coming undone.

On Friday and Saturday, about 150 religious conservatives gathered in Texas to see if they could coalesce behind an alternative to Mitt Romney. When the meeting ended, Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, announced that they had succeeded, with a supermajority of those present backing Rick Santorum. “From the outset, the stated goal of the meeting was to attempt to arrive at a consensus or a clear majority of support for a single conservative candidate,” he wrote in a press release. “That goal was achieved.”

Some attendees, though, say the process was rigged in Santorum’s favor. “I’m trying to correct the record,” former congressman J. C. Watts, a Newt Gingrich supporter, told me. “There wasn’t a consensus.” There were three ballots during the event. On the first one, Santorum received 57 votes, while Gingrich got 48, Rick Perry got 13, Mitt Romney got 3, and Ron Paul got 1. All the candidates except the top two were eliminated for the second ballot, which resulted in 49 votes for Gingrich and 70 for Santorum.

It’s what happened next, before the third ballot, that’s the subject of contention. “It’s my understanding that there were probably six or eight votes for Newt that left for the airport that did not vote in the final tally,” says Watts. They weren’t allowed to use proxy voters. Santorum voters, he believes, were. “No Newt supporter who went into that meeting came out of that meeting against him,” Watts insists.

He’s not the only one making such claims. Doug Wead, an evangelical outreach official in the Bush administration, was the meeting’s lone Ron Paul supporter. According to the Washington Times, he voiced suspicions that “organizers ‘manipulated’ the gathering and may even have stuffed the ballot to produce an endorsement” of Santorum. “By the time the weekend was over, it was clear that this had been definitely planned all along as a Rick Santorum event,” Wead told the paper.

All this means that with less than a week until the South Carolina primary, the religious right is as far from consensus as it ever was. The movement’s diffuse enthusiasms were evident at a Monday afternoon Faith and Freedom Coalition rally in Myrtle Beach, where all the candidates spoke, and where Gingrich received particularly lusty cheers.

The event took place in a heated tent across the street from the convention center where the evening’s debate would be held. It looked, as speaker after speaker reminded us, like an old-fashioned tent revival, and most of the candidates were in preacher mode. Rick Perry’s appeal was the most overtly theocratic. Speaking of gays and lesbians, Perry said, “I hate your sin, but I love you.” If voters support him, he said, “We can build more than just a winning campaign. We can bring about the next great awakening in this world.” This was met with applause, though it’s hard to find anyone in South Carolina who still takes his bid for the nomination seriously.

Romney isn’t particularly comfortable in such milieus, but the crowd reacted enthusiastically to his promise to fight China’s one-child policy. “The next president of the United States should stand up for human life in this country and anywhere in the world where it’s threatened,” he said. Still, as he wrapped up, a woman in front of me scrawled “Not Romney” on her Faith and Freedom Coalition placard—no campaign signs were allowed—and held it up.

“By the time the weekend was over, it was clear that this had been definitely planned all along as a Rick Santorum event.”

Ron Paul did a better job connecting. At a rally the night before, he’d spoken of the need to cut the military budget, and even said that freedom meant tolerating all sorts of beliefs, even atheism. That was all gone on Monday. Instead, he put his argument for the gold standard in biblical terms, referring to the injunction in Leviticus to be honest with weights and measures. “The Bible says we’re supposed to have honest currency, and that we’re not supposed to print the money,” he said, eliciting cheers.

Really, though, the contest for the group’s affections was between Santorum and Gingrich. Santorum urged the audience to overlook whatever they’ve heard about electability. “Do you want to win by being just a little better?” he asked. “Do you want to win by appealing to those folks who don’t necessarily agree with us, because you haven’t made the argument as to why they should? Or do you want to win with a mandate?”

Gingrich, who got there late and spoke last, was more direct. “The truth is I am the only candidate in the polls close enough to Governor Romney to stop a moderate from becoming the nominee,” he said. Someone in the crowd shouted, “That’s right!” The other candidates, Gingrich said, are “good, decent people, but understand that we need to unify the conservative movement in the next five days to ensure that a conservative wins the nomination.”

When the rally was over, I spoke to the woman who held up the “Not Romney” sign. It turned out she wasn’t from South Carolina—she’d driven all the way from Nevada to do whatever she could for Gingrich. A 79-year-old shopping-center developer named Barbara, she spoke of the country’s moral degeneration in personal terms, telling me about grandchildren who had babies out of wedlock, Oxycontin habits, and outrageous debts. She sees defeating Obama as an existential challenge, and doesn’t think Santorum is tough enough for it. “I don’t think he’s strong enough to take us through this deep, deep depression,” she said. “His values are there, but he’s not strong enough, or knowledgeable enough, or a leader enough to pull us through the pit that we are in.”

In the end, the split between Santorum and Gingrich is largely about whether people find purity or strength more important. “Santorum and Newt, on all the critical issues share the same value structure,” says Jim Garlow, a San Diego pastor and member of Gingrich’s Faith Leaders Coalition. Garlow, who was at the Texas meeting, says the key question is pragmatic: “Who can face the political realities and take on Obama? I want to see Newt Gingrich in a debate with Obama. I know who can win that one.”

Garlow realizes that time is running out for the right to unite, but until one of the two men drops out, there’s unlikely to be much movement on either side. “People feel very strongly about their candidates,” he says. “I suppose after South Carolina it’s going to shake out very fast.” By then, of course, it might be too late for them both.