New York hedge-fund manager Sean Fieler is financing a new political group bent on coaxing religiously-minded voters who oppose abortion rights and gay marriage back into politics.
Those activists -- and their money -- have been sidelined since a Republican Party civil war between the small-government Tea Party movement and business interests erupted last year after some U.S. House members dismissed the economic impact of a default on the federal government’s debt.
With Fieler’s backing, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s daughter, and Frank Cannon, who consults with evangelical and Catholic groups, are organizing the effort. They will travel to New York, Florida and Texas to raise money for American Principles Fund, a super-political action committee. Their message: Republicans must resume talking about issues such as abortion and their group can help develop a strategy that won’t backfire politically.
Fieler, co-founder of Equinox Partners LP, gave the super-PAC almost all of its $394,207 last year, according to a Federal Election Commission report filed Jan. 31.
“Donors want to win, and nobody has really yet made the case to donors that these are winning issues,” Fieler said of abortion rights, same-sex marriage and religious values. “What Republicans are being told is to ignore social issues and that’s the path to victory, when that’s actually false. We’re in the midst of an evolution for donors in the party.”
American Principles has set a fundraising goal of $10 million and plans to participate in 10 Senate and House races. Super-PACs can raise and spend unlimited sums of money on politics, while they are forbidden from coordinating with candidates and party committees.
Religious voters historically have influenced election outcomes. Former President George W. Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove relied upon abortion and gay marriage ballot initiatives in presidential battleground states to draw them to the voting booths and secure two victories.
Yet Rove in recent elections shed that approach for one with an economic message. His super-PAC and nonprofit political groups spent $300 million in 2012. Similarly, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who helped foster the Tea Party movement, don’t invest heavily on social issues ads.
“The big Republican super-PACs have all ruled out topics like abortion, traditional marriage, religious freedom,” Cannon said in an interview last week in Washington. “None of them are set up to make those arguments, even though there will be some races where that can be effective.”
A Pew Research Center study of religious voters shows a dip in white Protestants and Christians as a percentage of the total electorate, to 39 percent in 2012 from 45 percent in 2000. That group favored 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by 69 percent to President Barack Obama’s 30 percent, compared with Bush’s 63 percent to Democratic opponent Al Gore’s 35 percent.
“The biggest change with evangelical voters is how they’ve become conscientious objectors and are sitting at home during elections,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican polling expert.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Christian Coalition steered by Ralph Reed and the Family Research Council run by Tony Perkins served as the central organizing vehicles for evangelicals in politics. Though having less impact, both still exist and are joined by an array of other organizations, including the Faith & Freedom Coalition, Reed’s new evangelical voter data and outreach project.
In addition to American Principles, 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has a political committee, Patriot Voices, which raised about $685,000 last year, according to the FEC. Campaign for Working Families, a group run by 2000 Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, raised about $307,000 last year, the FEC records show.
American Principles’ founders said that even though they won’t muster the financial resources of their fiscal-focused counterparts, the return of social issues to the political dialogue will help.
“We want to have that integrated appeal that really no one is doing,” Sanders said in a telephone interview from Little Rock, Arkansas, where she is based. “We’ll do ads that appeal to middle-class Americans on the economy while not ignoring values.”
Republican strategists have been steering candidates away from such divisive topics as abortion rights after several candidates discussed it in a way that alienated women voters.
In 2012, Republican Todd Akin was in a competitive race to unseat Democratic Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill until he sat down with a Fox affiliate in St. Louis. In the interview, Akin said abortion shouldn’t be allowed in rape cases, in part because pregnancy was unlikely to result.
“From what I understand, from doctors, that’s really rare,” said Akin, who has served in the U.S. House since 2001. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
His remarks prompted former Bush adviser Karen Hughes to declare in Politico that “if another Republican man says anything about rape other than it is a horrific, violent crime, I want to personally cut out his tongue.”
Abortion-rights opponents say the party is overcompensating for such mistakes by going mum on matters that are a top priority for some of the party’s base.
“There’s a frustration among social conservatives with the consultant class and with some of the large financial interests in the Republican Party,” said Bauer in an interview. “The Wall Street wing of the party, a lot of these folks, in their entire cultural existence, they come across very few pro-lifers. It’s an entirely different experience than in the middle of America.”
Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s loss in the Virginia governor’s race last November should serve as a warning to Republicans, Bauer said, calling it “a tragedy.” Exit polls in that race showed that white evangelicals, who favored Cuccinelli over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, accounted for 27 percent of the electorate, a drop from 34 percent in 2009.
John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist who studies religious conservatives, said there’s a sense of “discouragement” among activists. That’s borne out, he said, “by the lack of ordinary folks writing $25 checks like they used to for the Christian Coalition.” The non-profit’s most recent tax forms online show it raised about $700,000 in 2011, compared with $26 million at its peak in 1996.
One of the most vocal donors to such causes and candidates is Foster Friess, a fund manager based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who spent more than $2.3 million trying to get Santorum elected in 2012. American Principles will reach out to him, Cannon and Sanders said. Friess’s spokeswoman said he was unavailable for comment.
Fieler, the hedge-fund manager, said groups like American Principles will seek to change the political dynamics by attacking as “extremists” Democrats who back federal funding of abortion and late-term procedures.
He said donors are starting to become aware of this “political opportunity.” Republican officials also are making overtures to social conservatives.
Last week the Republican-led House passed a bill banning taxpayer funds from being used to pay for abortions. And last month Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party, delayed the start of the winter meeting so that members could attend the “March for Life,” an annual anti-abortion rally in Washington.
Priebus’s move, combined with the party’s adoption of a resolution that candidates should recommit to anti-abortion positions, has delighted social conservatives.
“Voters are still hurting economically so we understand that has to be the top message again this election,” Sanders said. “But I think more of our leaders are starting to realize that doesn’t mean our party should leave behind social issues.”