Political Insider: McCain Faces Evangelical Dilemma After Hagee-Parsley Repudiation

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

Sen. John McCain’s decision to reject the endorsements of Pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley (see this week’s Jewish Week story here) could bolster support from centrist swing voters – including some Jews who are inclined to vote Republican but remain concerned about the influence of the religious right on the Republican Party.

But as political scientist John Green noted in the Jewish Week story, the repudiation could hurt McCain with GOP evangelicals whose strong support he still needs in November.

Today the Washington Post looks more closely at how McCain’s repudiation could impact the evangelical vote (read it here).

The Post story focuses more on Parsley, an Ohio megachurch pastor, than on Hagee. Parsley, the Post notes, “calls Islam a ‘false religion’ that God has told America to destroy.”

But the preacher has “growing clout” among evangelical Christians, the Post notes – and his ministry is based in Ohio, a critical swing state.

So while possibly helping McCain with non-evangelical swing voters, his repudiation of Parsley and Hagee – who have a combined TV and radio audience of over 100 million — could worsen the presumptive GOP nominee’s problem with evangelical voters.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, in an email interview with the Jewish Week before the latest chapter in the Hagee-Parsley saga, said that McCain faces a difficult balancing act as he deals with an evangelical constituency that remains deeply skeptical about his commitment to their social values agenda.

“McCain is dancing on several high wires simultaneously,” Sabato said. “He has to keep Bush’s remaining 30 percent (in public support) but he has to appear sufficiently anti-Bush to win 20 percent from those disaffected with Bush. He needs the fundamentalists but if they are too public and happy with McCain, he can’t capture enough highly educated, high income suburbanites. So he tap dances across the wires.”

In fact, his repudiation of the televangelists’ endorsements fits with a high-stakes gamble the McCain campaign is making.

Instead of focusing efforts on the GOP core – the strategy George W. Bush rode to the White House twice – the campaign will work hard to win over swing voters.

The risk with that strategy: the McCain campaign can’t afford too much of a backlash from the evangelicals, the GOP’s most reliable supporters. A decision by millions of evangelicals to sit out this year’s presidential contest — something that may be more likely with last week’s Hagee-Parsley eruption — could prove disastrous for McCain.

It should be noted that Barack Obama, the likeliest Democratic nominee, faces a similar problem. He needs the party’s liberal base and a huge turnout from African-American voters to win in November.

But too much of a focus on those groups in the campaign could turn off critical swing voters, especially in the South.

And that includes some Jewish swing voters.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.