Religious activists in the Republican Party, bolstered by House Speaker John Boehner’s sudden exit, say the next GOP presidential nominee must share their uncompromising stance on abortion rights, gay marriage and other priorities to get to the White House.
“You cannot win a primary and then succeed in the general election without having strength within the ranks of social conservative voters,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council Action. The group’s annual Values Voter Summit drew nearly 2,700 activists to Washington this weekend.
“Conservatives are on fire at the moment,” said Gary Bauer, a former president of the Family Research Council who spoke at the conference.
Participants cheered Boehner’s announcement Friday that he would resign from Congress by the end of October. That the veteran congressman was viewed by many in the party base as unwilling to do everything possible to thwart Democrats, including shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood funding, was evidence of the deep divide within the GOP.
An emboldened conservative movement signals fresh trouble for White House candidates seen by the same party members as insufficiently committed to their cause. Chief among them is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose support of immigration reform and Common Core education standards make him unacceptable to that bloc.
Such hard-line conservatives were deeply disappointed with the last two Republican presidential nominees — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 and Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008. The resignation of Boehner, second in line in presidential succession, gives them new hope that the party may choose a candidate who energizes the most passionate conservative voters even if he or she is less attractive in a general election.
Perkins argued that in 2012 socially conservative voters chose to stay home rather than vote for Romney, an assertion disputed by other election analysis. But he said he believes that the dynamics are different going into 2016 and that a candidate who excites conservatives will emerge.
“Hopefully they’ve learned their lesson,” he said of the Republican Party.
A co-founder of the tea party movement, Mark Meckler, said Boehner was just another establishment figure taken down by frustrated conservatives.
“Today, the insurgency is more emboldened than ever and looks to even further dominate the presidential elections in 2016,” Meckler said. “Our influence is growing.”
In the crowded hallways of the Values Voter conference, 60-year-old Alvin Kaddatz said the turmoil on Capitol Hill sends a clear message to the presidential field.
“They need to be listening to what the people are saying,” said Kaddatz, who sells farm equipment in Hillsboro, Texas. “They need to follow through on their promises. And if they don’t, elections have consequences.”
It’s unclear whether grass-roots conservatives can back up their tough talk. But in an undeniably anti-establishment climate, the leading presidential contenders appear to be complying, at least for now.
Most support a tea party-backed measure to strip federal dollars from the women’s health care provider Planned Parenthood as part of budget negotiations, even if such a move causes a partial government shutdown as early as this week.
Polls show a majority of voters oppose such brinkmanship over this issue. Republicans were largely blamed the last time government shut down over funding for the Affordable Care Act, which lasted 16 days in 2013.
Who’s indicated a willingness to take it that far? Businessman Donald Trump; Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas; former technology executive Carly Fiorina; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey; and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
All those in the race want to strip the money from Planned Parenthood, but only a few want to do that without risking a shutdown. Put Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Bush in that category, a stance that does not help Bush with conservatives already skeptical of his commitment to their principles.
Bush was absent from the Values Voter speaking program. He cited a scheduling conflict, and Perkins expressed surprise that Bush didn’t attend given that Trump, Carson and Fiorina are leading in many polls.
“He needs to do well with this voting bloc,” Perkins said. “He needs all the help he can get.”
Bush’s team cited 14 public and private meetings with religious conservative leaders since April, suggesting that his absence from the Values Voter summit did not signal a lack of commitment to their priorities.
For Arlie Olsen, 64, who raises pigs in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, Boehner’s departure was “a good omen for where the country may be headed.”
Olsen offered a message to his party’s 2016 class of White House hopefuls: “It is going to be really hard for a candidate to win if they don’t have the backing of this group.”