Infighting

01.19.12

Evangelicals in an Uproar Over Rick Santorum Endorsement

A dispute among evangelical leaders over endorsing the ex-senator has mushroomed into bitter charges of deceit and bad faith as the GOP race heads toward South Carolina.

The private meeting of conservative religious leaders at a Texas ranch last weekend was billed as a unifying event for the evangelical right to come behind a consensus presidential candidate. But a kumbaya moment it was not.

The group’s hasty endorsement of Rick Santorum on Saturday prompted a round of finger-pointing that quickly went public. But since then it has escalated into an acrimonious civil war among evangelicals, with attendees hurling furious accusations of manipulation, ballot-box stuffing, and outright un-Christian behavior.

Religious leaders favoring other candidates now say that the meeting of more than 100 religious activists was manipulated to favor Santorum going into the Jan. 21 primary in South Carolina, and in no way reflects a global view from the Christian right. The disarray reinforces the belief that this election could end the movement’s 30-year era of dominance in Republican politics.

“I respectfully request that you ask for a re-vote of the attendees,” wrote David Lane, a Newt Gingrich supporter, in a harsh email to Robert Fischer, an organizer of the event. “Have you aired the allegation of fraud to the attendees?”

Against this tense political backdrop emerged reports that James Dobson—an iconic religious figure who espouses family values—took the microphone between the second and third ballots to denounce Callista Gingrich, questioning her fitness to be first lady because she was a “mistress” to the former House speaker for several years.

He also lavished praise on Karen Santorum, lauding her for giving up her career to take care of her children. (It should be noted that his endorsement of Karen came before a Daily Beast report that she had lived for six years with a doctor who provided abortion services before marrying Santorum.)

“It was pretty shocking,” said one attendee who didn’t vote for Santorum and who like others interviewed for this piece, would only speak on a not-for-attribution basis. “Everyone’s mouth dropped open.”

Dobson’s comments were remarkable given that it was on his radio show, five years ago, that Newt Gingrich first began the process of seeking redemption for his tumultuous personal life. Dobson did not deny the remarks. In a statement first reported by Politico, Dobson said it was “common knowledge that Speaker Gingrich has been married three times, which is discussed every day on the campaign trail. It is also known that Callista Gingrich was his mistress for years.

“That is hardly news. My five-second comment to that effect was not intended to be cruel or hurtful, just a statement of fact.”

The disarray reinforces the belief that this election could end the movement’s 30-year era of dominance in Republican politics.

Those who take issue with the outcome of the vote also say the gathering was more noteworthy for who did not attend than who did. “There were no leaders of religious universities, no leaders of major denominational Christian churches,” said one prominent evangelical leader in attendance who did not vote for Santorum. “The whole things was sloppy and a waste of time. It wasn’t representative of anything.”

Among those who have been accused of skewing the event to favor Santorum are well-known evangelical leaders Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer and Dobson—who were conveniently the last speakers. Another participant said that there were at least 10 extraneous attendees—friends of friends, or assistants—who were allowed to vote." The organizers released a statement maintaining the process was "fair and in the open."

The gathering was seen by many as the leaders’ last-gasp attempt to stop Mitt Romney’s surge to the nomination. Evangelicals could account for 60 percent of vote in South Carolina.

The former Massachusetts governor—who many evangelicals view as unreliable on social issues—has already won the first two contests and is leading Gingrich in South Carolina by 33 to 23 percent, according to a Time/CNN poll. A win on Saturday could essentially clinch the nomination for Romney.

Representatives for Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Gingrich were invited to make brief presentations to the group. Mark DeMoss, speaking for Romney at the meeting, talked about the need to support someone who is electable. Doug Wead, speaking for Ron Paul, spoke of Paul’s honesty, saying, “He is a clean boat in a sea of garbage.” James Leininger, speaking for Perry, talked about the candidate’s record as governor of Texas.

Only nine votes separated Santorum and Gingrich on the first ballot (58-47), with the other three candidates garnering 17 votes. “At that point it was just chaos,” said one attendee. “They said that Tony Perkins had an 11:15 press availability, so all of sudden there was all this pressure to rush the process.”

Around that time, an argument ensued over what language Perkins would use to convey the support for Santorum, with participants quibbling over “consensus,” “endorsement ” or “super majority.” Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, has been using “super majority” in the media.

A number of Gingrich supporters had to leave before the second ballot to catch planes, and were furious that their votes were not included in the second and third ballots.

They had barely arrived at the airport when their BlackBerrys lit up with an email blast from the Santorum campaign—announcing the good news.