Guilford GOP volunteers ambivalent about marriage ballot initiative

Considering that the speaker comes from a political outfit with a demonstrated record of mobilizing social conservative voters and that the session was billed as a “citizen action seminar” one might have expected the Marriage Amendment referendum on North Carolina’s May primary ballot to be front and center.

The pointers given by Billy Kirkland, national field director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, at a “volunteer appreciation day” at the Guilford County Republican Party Headquarters on Jan. 28 tended towards the kind of general precepts and nuts-and-bolts mechanics that any political operative, regardless of ideology, would find useful. He talked about identifying people who share your beliefs and who can be counted on to show up and vote, the primacy of face-to-face interaction and importance of relationships, and cultivating candidates who put likeable faces on the Republican agenda.

The Georgia-based Faith and Freedom Coalition is only two years old, but its leadership draws from a deep well of experience. Chairman Ralph Reed served as a senior advisor to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 and 2004 and led the Christian Coalition in the 1990s.

Kirkland said the organization has launched a campaign to identify North Carolina churches willing to hold voter registration drives with the goal of signing up 200,000 new voters who are aligned with the coalition’s platform in opposition to same-sex marriage and opposing abortion and in favor of keeping taxes low.

Kirkland added that the coalition seeks to establish liaisons within mega-churches and other politically-active and conservative-leaning churches to avoid adding to the responsibilities of pastors. The coalition will counsel pastors that they may hold voter registration drives and send members to political rallies without worrying about the Internal Revenue Service yanking their churches’ tax-exempt status.

The strategy is more about selecting demographic profiles that are already on board than promoting a particular message.

Kirkland described local party volunteers as “the grassroots army of North Carolina.”

“The people you go to church with more often than not share your values,” he said. “We want to make sure social conservatives vote.”

The organizer also suggesting using petition drives to identify and activate social-conservative voters.

Kirkland’s choice to de-emphasize the Marriage Amendment to the roughly 20 people who attended the session fit with an apparent ambivalence among local Republican activists about the ballot initiative.

Rich Brenner, a retired sportscaster who attended part of the presentation, said in an interview that he regrets that Republican lawmakers put the Marriage Amendment on the ballot.

“I just don’t like it because it’s a polarizing issue,” he said. “It takes the eye off the main issue, which in North Carolina is jobs. We need limited government and less regulation. We don’t need some emotionally charged issue that divides people.”

Brenner predicted that Republican candidates who stick to bread-and-butter economic issues will do better than those aligned with the Marriage Amendment and other social conservative causes in this election year.

“I think the candidates that are going to do well are the candidates who have a positive message and don’t divide people with these third-rail issues,” he said. “Of course, there’s these people who, when you say, ‘Don’t touch, it’s hot,’ they do it anyway.”

While noting that he had not seen Kirkland’s presentation, Brenner expressed skepticism about the efficacy of using the Marriage Amendment as a device to get out the vote.

“He’ll get a bloc of voters to turn out,” Brenner said. “It’s just a question of how many.”

The Faith and Freedom Coalition is attempting a delicate balancing act with the Marriage Amendment, and its leaders are eschewing confrontational “culture war” rhetoric that risks alienating independent voters.

“In the Republican Party, we want to practice addition rather than subtraction,” Kirkland said after the presentation. “[The Marriage Amendment] is a family-values tradition we think is important to uphold.”

In a video of a workshop by Reed that Kirkland showed the Guilford GOP activists, Reed notes demographic and political changes that are making non-whites an increasingly significant part of the electoral mix, and encourages the promotion of non-white candidates such as Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico as a means of reaching voters who might be otherwise skeptical of the party’s agenda.

The party may have some adjustments in tone to make before black and Hispanic voters feel comfortable taking a seat under the tent.

Setting up a story about Abraham Lincoln’s maxim about winning elections, Kirkland mistakenly remarked that there were no reporters present, and then shared with his all-white audience that until fifth grade he had never heard of the Civil War; in his family, the conflict was known as “the War of Northern Aggression.”

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