Praise the Lord and Pass the Initiatives

State GOP hires a Bush campaign veteran to get evangelicals to the polls. Abortion is the draw.

By Michael Finnegan
Times Staff Writer
October 13, 2005

State Republicans are moving to rally Christian conservatives behind an abortion measure on the November special election ballot in hopes that, once drawn to the polls, they will back the rest of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fall agenda.

The party has hired Gary Marx, a top liaison to social conservatives in President Bush’s reelection campaign, to assemble up to 10 organizers to build support among evangelicals and other religious conservatives for Proposition 73. The measure on the Nov. 8 ballot would require parental notification when minors seek abortions.

In mailers sent to Republican voters, the party also has trumpeted Schwarzenegger’s endorsement of the abortion proposal. “Arnold says vote yes,” one glossy party mailer says about Proposition 73.

To broader audiences, the Republican governor has muted his support for Proposition 73, focusing instead on four other measures he is pushing to change state budget, education and campaign laws. Schwarzenegger’s campaign ads do not mention abortion, nor does he bring it up at public events.

Like the multimillion-dollar mailing program, the church project led by Marx reflects the hope of Schwarzenegger’s political team that a strong turnout of abortion opponents inspired to vote by Proposition 73 could boost prospects for the governor’s entire agenda.

“If we can get Proposition 73 voters into the polls, it will have a benefit for the other propositions as well,” said Mike Vallante, chief operating officer of the state Republican Party.

Lew Uhler, a leader of the campaign for Schwarzenegger’s measure to curb political spending by labor unions, Proposition 75, agreed that anti-abortion voters would be a key factor in the election.

“We are very fortunate to have that measure at the top of the ticket,” he said. “It is the most emotion-packed issue on the ballot, and it appeals to a broad range of people, irrespective of party.”

The Republican church program is partly an attempt to replicate the Bush campaign’s success in mobilizing swing-state evangelicals behind the president last year through extensive face-to-face conversations with fellow parishioners, neighbors and co-workers.

The state party also is putting another Bush campaign tactic behind Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures: the use of vast consumer marketing data to project voters’ political leanings.

The Republican National Committee has taken data on Californians’ magazine subscriptions, book purchases and other personal information and merged it with the state party’s list of voters’ names, addresses, party affiliations and frequency of casting ballots in elections.

The combined data have enabled the state party to refine its selection of which California voters to target with mail, phone calls and home visits ‹ and to calculate which initiatives they might support.

“It allows the campaigns to talk to people not based on their party affiliation but based on what their passions are, what their interests are,” Vallante said. “It’s truly an amazing thing that these consumer data companies collect.”

The moves to align Schwarzenegger with religious conservatives are inherently awkward; he vaulted into the governor’s office partly on the strength of his reputation as a social moderate who supports abortion rights.

But the quiet attempts to maximize November’s conservative vote are important to the governor because turnout is likely to be low for a special election that has sparked little public interest. Unions and their Democratic allies are mounting similar efforts to prod large numbers of their own core supporters to the polls.

The election results, strategists on both sides say, could hinge on which side is most successful in luring its base voters to cast ballots.

To strategists for organized labor and Democrats, any spike in interest in the election among religious conservatives poses a threat to their campaign against Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures.

“It is a powerful force to be reckoned with in California politics ‹ and certainly in Republican California politics,” said Steve Smith, a labor strategist who is also managing the campaign against the abortion proposal.

The Marx church project is expected to cost at least $150,000, according to Vallante.

A former executive director of the Virginia Christian Coalition, Marx was a political consultant at Century Strategies, the firm led by Ralph E. Reed Jr., onetime leader of the national Christian Coalition.

Most recently, Marx has been executive director of Judicial Confirmation Network, which has sought to build support for Bush’s Supreme Court nominees.

In Bush’s reelection campaign headquarters in Virginia last year, Marx was one of the main players in building the president’s evangelical base.

Among other things, the campaign gathered a vast collection of church membership directories, then set out to identify those not registered to vote, sign them up and ensure they cast ballots for the president.

But the scope of the California campaign is far narrower, and the organizers have less than four weeks until the election.

The state party, Vallante said, has put Marx and his team in charge of “getting the word out” about Proposition 73 in churches, mainly in California’s conservative-leaning inland counties.

In a brief telephone interview Wednesday, Marx said: “When we’re able to identify voters that are pro-Proposition 73, we make sure that we tell them how they can get registered to vote” ‹ and make sure they cast ballots.

Peter Henderson, director of public policy at California Family Council, a conservative advocacy group, called the Marx project a welcome addition to conservative turnout efforts.

“Proposition 73 is really the linchpin of conservative involvement in the special election,” he said.

Historically, political organizing of Christian conservatives in California has been a challenge.

The state’s vast size and its reliance on television to propel campaigns are impediments. As is a dearth of money: The lack of competitive presidential contests in California has led the national Republican Party to spend more heavily in other parts of the country.

Also, many of the state’s biggest church congregations, particularly in fast-growing outlying suburban areas, are nondenominational, with no central authority setting a unified statewide political agenda.

A notable exception is the Roman Catholic Church. The state’s bishops have endorsed Proposition 73. The California Catholic Conference has put Yes on 73 announcements on its website to print in church bulletins. The conference has also posted suggested homilies for pastors to read at services in the state’s 1,100 Catholic churches.

“A choice for life can never be wrong,” one homily says. “Proposition 73 is the right thing to do.”

Beyond churches, the main vehicle to draw conservative voters to the polls in California is talk radio, including a statewide network of Christian stations with mainly religious programming.

Of all the issues on the ballot, abortion is the one that radio hosts “can talk about for two or three hours on the air,” said David Spadey, director of national news and public affairs at conservative radio network Salem Communications Corp. of Camarillo. “That’s really the only issue on the ballot that has the social, traditional-values component to it,” he said.

On Tuesday, Schwarzenegger promoted his election agenda on nine conservative radio shows.

For the most part, he stuck to promoting Propositions 74, 75, 76 and 77, the main focus of his campaign.

When asked about Proposition 73 by Eric Hogue of Salem’s KTKZ in Sacramento, he bluntly expressed support for it.

“I wouldn’t want my daughter to be taken away from her school without my permission and sent to a hospital for an abortion,” he said. “That’s as simple as that.”
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