Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Politico: Battle For 'Christian Constituency' In 5th

By Alex Isenstadt/Politico ~ There is little separating Oklahoma Republicans James Lankford and Kevin Calvey in their cultural conservatism: Both are vocally anti-abortion and opposed to gay marriage.

But as they head toward their Aug. 24 runoff for the 5th District seat of retiring GOP Rep. Mary Fallin, the men find themselves competing for different segments of a vote-rich Christian constituency.

Calvey, a former state representative who is Catholic, is trying to tap into evangelical support by presenting himself as a tried-and-true anti-abortion candidate. Calvey’s website spotlights his endorsement from the anti-abortion Concerned Women for America and notes that during law school he interned with the National Right to Life Committee.

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Those opposed to abortion rights are “a very important bloc of voters in the district,” said Trebor Worthen, a Calvey consultant.

Lankford, meanwhile, has keyed into a wave of Southern Baptist support through his directorship of the Falls Creek summer camp, a prominent organization that bills itself as “the largest religious youth encampment in the world.” The Oklahoma Republican has trumpeted his endorsements from prominent Southern Baptist political figures, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts and former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys.

A video on Lankford’s website features Huckabee praising the candidate as a “reliable conservative who has incredible leadership experience outside of politics, and he’s a man that’s devoted to God, his family and the Constitution.”

For Lankford, a political unknown who is waging his first run for elected office, Oklahoma City’s large Southern Baptist population has provided him with a crucial support base against a more politically experienced opponent.

“It gives him a tremendous advantage,” said Pat McFerron, an Oklahoma City-based GOP pollster, adding that Lankford’s background and appeal as a Christian leader in the community had introduced new primary voters into the electorate. “It’s a legitimate part of his sell to motivate people to participate in the primary.”

“I think it’s a tremendous base for Lankford heading into the runoff,” said McFerron.

In an interview, Lankford insisted that he was not trying to run as a Christian candidate and that his campaign was focused on economic and fiscal issues. But he acknowledged his religious background was a key component of his bid.

“I’m definitely not ashamed of it,” he said. “It is part of who I am. It’s part of where I came from.”

“We have, from the beginning of the race, tried to define ourselves in three ways: unabashedly Christian, unabashedly conservative and unabashedly from outside of politics,” he said.

With the runoff just weeks away, the contest’s religious overtones are taking center stage.

Last week, Calvey released a new TV ad calling both men “good Christians” but appearing to undermine Lankford’s leadership of the Falls Creek summer camp. The 30-second spot noted that while “Lankford served the community well as a youth camp director, Calvey fought the liberals to cut Oklahomans taxes and reduce state spending.”

Lankford called the ad “belittling” and a sign of desperation from Calvey, who finished with a narrow victory in last month’s primary, necessitating the runoff. [An obvious error by the writer; Lankford finished first, Calvey second.]

“I don’t know if he’s attempting to get any traction out of it, but it’s his choice,” Lankford said. “It’s a traditional political tactic to attack when you’re behind.”


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