Three GOP target groups for 2006

Pundits seem to be warming to the proposition that Republicans are going to struggle in the November elections. This dire prediction could come true if Republican strategists ignore three groups — churchgoers, energy consumers and parents of school-age children — that have played key roles in recent Republican victories and are essential to assembling a winning coalition next November.

Pundits seem to be warming to the proposition that Republicans are going to struggle in the November elections. This dire prediction could come true if Republican strategists ignore three groups — churchgoers, energy consumers and parents of school-age children — that have played key roles in recent Republican victories and are essential to assembling a winning coalition next November.

First, I’d work to shore up Republicans’ image with some key religious constituencies. Several recent developments have, I believe, undermined the support many in the churchgoing community once happily bestowed on Republicans.

The Jack Abramoff scandal has exposed the contempt among some Republican operatives for people of faith and has genuinely bruised some feelings. Churchgoers also don’t want to feel compelled to be apologists for corrupt lawbreakers, even sympathetic Republican ones. Church leaders dumped an errant Jim Bakker quickly. They’ll similarly waste no time disassociating themselves from elected officials who violate the law.

Then there was the announcement that a church in California might have its tax-exempt status revoked. While the church in question was a liberal one that endorsed John Kerry’s election, it has frightened conservative clerics more than anyone else. How did this happen? If it happens again, isn’t it most likely that a conservative church would be under the gun?

Many conservatives have also been disheartened by the fact that so many Republican lawmakers seem to have gone soft on stem-cell research and related life issues, including “right to die” issues, such as in the Terri Schiavo case.

I wouldn’t suggest that these developments will cause dissatisfied conservative church folk to cross over and vote for the Democrats. That won’t happen. But Christians have another option. They can simply sit out the November 2006 election to express their frustration. This is a real possibility that cannot be ignored. There are moderate Republicans who believe that less cozy relations between the church community and the GOP would be a good thing politically. It would be useful in their quest to generate more moderate support for the party, but no one in that camp, even the most optimistic ones, could rationally argue that the math of driving off more numerous conservative Christians to add a few moderates adds up to anything less than an electoral deficit.

The second strategy that Republicans should embrace is fostering lower and less fluctuating energy prices. Republicans who once argued with passion that voters would swoon for a 10 percent tax cut seem to miss the point that these same voters can be lost if consumer-level energy costs rise by 50 percent and if prices for gasoline and home heating and cooling fuels fluctuate wildly, making home budgeting nearly impossible. Unlike the religious voter, these harried consumers might actually vote for the Democrats to signal their frustration.

Reagan Democrats in places such as Macomb County Michigan didn’t just move toward Reagan, Bush and John Engler because they simply believed in smaller government and “traditional values.” They thought that Republicans would save them a buck or two. In too many haunts of Reagan Democrats, there is now a sense that Republicans are complicit in the energy-cost mess. That must be fixed.

The third group to focus on is parents of school-age children. For better than a decade now, Republican ideas have driven educational reforms. In many corners of this country, the whole education establishment now bears unmistakable GOP imprints. Yet many parents are as frustrated as ever that the schools are still not adequately educating their children.

And to make matters worse, some Republicans seem to be refocusing their attention now on the gimmicky so-called 65-percent solution (putting 65 percent “in the classroom”) rather than ensuring that serious reforms such as charter schools, school accountability and teacher pay for performance are allowed to succeed. Republicans who stand idly by while college tuition rates soar are also making the way hard for Republicans who will face the 2006 electorate.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.