It’s eight weeks before the Republican Primary, and while it looks like Dr. Monica Wehby is the favorite to win the Republican nomination for US Senator, Jason Conger does have a path to victory.
Henry Olsen, a Fellow at the conservative think tank the Ethics and Public Policy Center, describes in The National Interest the four voting blocs within the Republican Party. He describes them from a national perspective, but claims that these blocs exists in all States and in pretty consistent percentages. The blocs are:
Moderate – Liberals: This group makes up 25-30% of the party. The most defining characteristic is that they almost always support the most secular candidate. They have supported presidential candidates such as Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul.
Somewhat Conservative: The largest bloc of Republicans at 35-40%. They always back the winner. They are not cultural warriors. They prefer candidates who hold conservative views fiscally and socially, but do not back radical change. They also prefer experienced candidates who have paid their dues, like McCain and Romney.
Very Conservative Evangelicals make up 20% of the Republican voters. They supported Gov. Huckabee and Sen. Santorum. They also don’t always condemn all government programs. Social Security, Defense, Medicare are examples. But they do demand their candidates have actively social conservative positions.
Very Conservative Secular voters are the smallest Republican bloc at 5-10%. They supported Gingrich, Cain and Perry. They prefer urbane fiscally conservative candidates. But their candidates tend to lack enough base support so fall out of contention quickly. This group, Olsen argues, tend to eventually swing behind whoever the Somewhat Conservative voters back.
It appears that Dr. Wehby is strongest with the Moderate / Liberal bloc of voters and Rep. Conger’s base starts with the Very Conservative Evangelicals. Meaning Wehby is starting with a 30% of the vote, Conger with 20% of the vote. Leaving 50% of Republican voters still up for grabs.
Conger must persuade at least half of the somewhat conservative bloc – or at least 20% of the remaining voters – to support him. Then the Very conservative bloc of 10% would swing his way giving him 30% more. The race then becomes a virtual tie. Since this is a mid term election turnout could end up being the key. Conger could squeak by with the win if he can get the Very Conservative Evangelicals to turn out at a higher rate than the Liberal – Moderate voters.
So, there’s a needle Rep. Conger has to thread. How do you increase turnout among Very Conservative Evangelicals, while also persuading Somewhat Conservative voters – who don’t back radical change – to support you?
Gordon Smith and Mark Hatfield were socially conservative but able to gain the support of Somewhat Conservative and Very Conservative Secular voters. Perhaps because their religious traditions – Catholic and LDS- hold well known and strict social conservative standards, there was no need to restate the obvious during their campaigns. Somewhat Conservative voters do support social conservative values – they just don’t want radical change – All Smith and Hatfield needed to say was that their religion is important to them, and is a family tradition.
Conger describes his religious affiliation as Christian in online candidate forms. Today, that affiliation generally carries the meaning of non denominational evangelical Christian. Not always a positive connotation when it comes to voters who don’t want radical changes in social policies. Conger has to figure out how to shorthand his message to Republicans that his deeply felt social conservativism would not require him to take radical and un-winnable positions while still pointing out that social conservativism is an important difference between he and Wehby. For instance he could say:
“Dr. Wehby and I have contrary positions on abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues. Like Senators Smith and Hatfield before me, my positions express my personal values and are based on my family’s long held religious and moral beliefs going back generations. It would be impossible to ask me to reject my beliefs. And it would be unfair for me to demand Dr. Wehby change her moral values. “
Conger does have at least a couple things going for him. His personal history is more compelling in many ways than Wehby’s. And his education and intelligence are an equal match for Wehby. Importantly, he has experience in elected politics. Somewhat Conservative voters favor experience and here Conger has a clear advantage that he has to stress to the Somewhat Conservative voters.
He should focus his experience in actually winning elections and actually governing and contrast that with Wehby’s lack of party involvement. He should talk about his hardscrabble Oregon upbringing. But the key is he has to consistently and respectfully remind voters of the source and difference in personal social values between he and Wehby in a way that energizes his base and assures the 50% of Republicans in play. Reminding voters of Senators Smith and Hatfield and the respect all Republican voters showed to their personal religious based morals would be a good start.
Winning the middle while energizing the base. Easier said than done.