Worried GOP bids to shore up conservative support for Nov.

Leaders fear those disillusioned with the Republican-led Congress could stay home on Election Day, giving victory to the Democrats.

Published September 10, 2006

WASHINGTON — For all those glum conservatives out there, Terry Jeffries has a message: Yes, the Republican-led Congress has failed to plug the leaks in the nation’s borders. Yes, federal spending is out of control, despite pledges by Republican leaders to temper it. And, yes, Congress has failed to pass key social measures once thought all but assured, considering Congress and the White House are in Republican hands.

But Jeffries, the editor of Human Events, a respected conservative newsweekly, also wants readers to realize those frustrations will seem piddling if Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the strident Democratic leader from California, becomes speaker of the House after November’s elections.

Concerned that disillusionment among  conservatives may keep them home on Election Day, conservative groups and opinion leaders have embarked on a two-pronged strategy, on one hand urging Republican congressional leaders to assuage their conservative base in the few weeks left, and on the other imploring the base not to abandon deserving Republican candidates at their time of need.

Through articles, opinion columns and talk radio, as well as Internet blogs, they are warning conservative voters that unless they flock to the polls in November, the Republicans may lose control of the U.S. House, and that the margin in the Senate could get dangerously close.

Meanwhile, in the coming weeks, several large conservative groups plan voter registration drives in states with key congressional races or ballot initiatives, like Missouri, Ohio and South Dakota.

“I do hope that people out there who are genuine conservatives think about the consequences,’’ Jeffries said. “It’s one thing to decide you’re not happy with the Republicans, but it’s another thing to let the Democrats take power.’’

It is a fear that is resounding in the halls of Congress. Republican House seats in Florida, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, Connecticut, Indiana and elsewhere are in danger of flipping, as are GOP Senate seats in Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

With both chambers expected to adjourn by the end of September so members can campaign, Republican leaders plan to use the time left to burnish their conservative credentials and highlight their differences with Democrats, particularly on national security.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said to expect debates aimed at highlighting a Republican Party that stands strong against terrorism vs. Democrats “who will cut and run”; the party of lower taxes vs.

Democrats who want a bigger cut of your paycheck; and the party of better border security vs. the Democratic Party of illegal immigration.

“On one side we have Republican leadership taking us in a direction based on principle and prosperity, and on the Democratic side a direction backwards, based on obstruction and partisanship,’’ Frist said. “Those contrasts have to be made, and I believe that they will be made.’’

At the end of last week, the Senate passed a bill that would create a database for tracking $1-trillion in federal contracts, grants and “earmarks,’’ those goodies often secretly slipped into spending bills for pet projects and key contributors.

It was a bipartisan bill, but the issue had become paramount for conservatives. “The Republicans have not been all that they hoped. What we need to do is keep giving them a reason to vote,’’ said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., one of the Senate’s most conservative members. While the transparency bill does nothing to cut the budget, he said, ''once people know what (spending measures) we’re passing, it will at least create a little shame.’’

In the House, Republican leaders have pledged to take up their own earmarks reform bill, as well as a bill aimed at plugging U.S. borders with more agents, fencing and surveillance, and giving local police more power to arrest illegal immigrants. They’ll also push bills to expand President Bush’s domestic spying program and prosecute suspected terrorists.

Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, the fifth-ranking House Republican, said the ruling party always faces apathy at midterm elections. He says he believes the Republican base will be more excited in November than many predict, though GOP leaders can’t take it for granted.

“I think it is important to counter that complacency … with a wake-up call on what apathy would cost the country,’’ said Putnam, who was tapped  to lead the new drive for border security.

And what would be the cost to conservative causes?

Analysts agree the chances of a Democratic takeover are better in the House than in the Senate, and the House is where most of the most conservative legislation originates. Conservative leaders hope to impress upon constituents that a Democrat-led House would wreck their agenda: After 12 years of tacking to the right, attempts to ban gay marriage, restrict abortion and loosen environmental regulations would essentially stop.

Tax breaks for the wealthy and some major industries, particularly the oil industry, would likely be cut. House Democrats also are more friendly to the Senate-passed immigration bill, which couples border security with providing a way for most of the 12-million illegal immigrants living in the United States to become legal. Bush generally supports the Senate bill, but conservatives can’t stand it.

House Democrats almost certainly would call on Bush to bring the troops home from Iraq, or at least set a timetable for withdrawal. Many Republicans oppose that, too.

Conservative concern reached a kind of critical mass last week.

There were articles by conservative commentators, and Human Events ran an article explaining how replacing Republican chairmen of key House committees with Democrats would derail the conservative agenda.

On Thursday, the Republican National Committee launched America Weakly, a spoof newspaper that imagines the world under a Democratic Congress. It describes a world of weakness in the “war on terror,’’ a more bloated federal bureaucracy, and unending investigations into the Bush administration.

On Friday, the cover of the conservative National Review featured Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, who is detested by many conservatives. “Madame Speaker?’’ it asked.

And all week long, syndicated columnist David Limbaugh tried to put the fear of God in conservatives during dozens of radio and TV appearances as he pitched his new book, Bankrupt: The Intellectual and Moral Bankruptcy of Today’s Democratic Party.

Limbaugh — commentator Rush Limbaugh’s brother — says he, too, is frustrated with inaction on spending and immigration, but that’s no reason to stay home on Election Day.

“If you spank the Republicans for not being conservative enough, the result will not be bringing them back to the fold,’’ he said. “The result will be turning the reins over to a party that is ill-equipped to protect the national security … and won’t be good for the economy or social issues.

“The time to reform the Republican Party is between elections, and to do it from within. It is not taking your ball and going home.’’

But the Rev. Rob Schenck,  president of the National Clergy Council in Washington, says that’s just what he’s hearing when he visits congregations around the nation. While the House indeed has passed bills restricting abortion, banning gay marriage, and protecting the display of religious symbols on public property, the Senate has not. He blames a lack of commitment and leadership.

“There’s a growing number of us who are beginning to feel like it might be better to lose on the right principles than to win on the wrong ones,’’ Schenk said. “I think the Republican Party leadership needs a strong message that we’re done playing games.’’

It has always been difficult to measure how much sway the right holds in elections, though a strong turnout by evangelicals can push a Republican candidate over the top in close races.

In Florida on Tuesday, the self-anointed ''values candidate’’ for the Republican nomination for governor, Tom Gallagher, was trounced by a moderate, Attorney General Charlie Crist.

But while turnout on Tuesday for both parties was dismal, some 130,000 more Republicans voted than Democrats. Mary Katharine  Ham, managing editor of the conservative Web site Townhall.com, and others said they also believe the Republican Party’s superior get-out-the-vote machine will help overcome conservative malaise in November.

“My take on it is … they’re going to come back home, and realize that trusting Democrats with national security is maybe not the best idea for them,’’ she said. “But it’s very hard to gauge.’’