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Religious Conservatives Focus On Midterm Elections


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

They're calling it the Road to Majority. It's the third annual meeting of conservative religious activists with the Faith and Freedom Coalition. The conference is underway now in Washington, D.C. Its stated aim: To boost the conservative vote for next year's midterm election.

As NPR's David Welna reports, it's also a platform for Republican stars eyeing the White House in 2016.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: With strong Tea Party ties, the Faith and Freedom Coalition's 700,000 members are known as Teavangelicals. And their convention roster this year is in part a reprise of last year's GOP presidential primary. It includes Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and the number two on last year's Republican ticket, Paul Ryan. There are also possible presidential contenders: Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. But it was Tea Party upstart and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul who got top billing yesterday, as coalition founder Ralph Reed opened the three-day meeting.

RALPH REED: His primary opponent was anointed by the party bosses, heavily outspent him, but he stood for what was right and what was conservative, and our principles of faith and freedom. And he won that primary by a 23-point margin and then went on to win the general election in 2010.


WELNA: Paul used the opportunity to strike a somewhat isolationist stance, and poke at politicians who he said have been all too eager to back U.S. military interventions.

SEN. RAND PAUL: And I think as Christians we must be wary of this doctrine of pre-emptive war. We must and should stand with our fellow Christians and our Jewish friends in the Middle East and around the world, but that doesn't mean necessarily, mean war all the time everywhere and without any consideration.

WELNA: Fellow Tea Party activist Mike Lee, a GOP senator from Utah, told the crowd that for conservatives the road to majority is unfortunately usually the road not taken. To grow their ranks, he said, conservatives have to reach out more to those at the bottom rungs of the social ladder.

SEN. MIKE LEE: These families - these moms and dads and grandparents and kids - they're waiting for us. They know more government just isn't the answer. They know government only divides them. But they also know that too often our party has ignored them. That has to change.

WELNA: After winning only 29 percent of the Latino vote in the last election, many Republicans have also concluded their party's stance on immigration has to change. Yet neither Lee nor Paul said one word about the massive immigration bill the Senate's in the process of amending. Many conservatives strongly oppose the bill's promised path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who helped write that bill, mentioned it only in passing.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: You can see it and I know we're in the throes of this immigration debate, which is very conflictive and divisive in many quarters, including among people that are supporters of ours and of mine. But at the essence of our immigration policy is compassion.

WELNA: But what really seemed to move the crowd was Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson's exhortation to broaden anger over the IRS, Benghazi and NSA controversies to encompass the entire federal government.

SEN. RON JOHNSON: When I hear politicians talk about restoring faith in government - no, no, no, no, no - that is the wrong solution. We need to engender that healthy distrust, that healthy distrust that our founders found in government.

WELNA: Today the Teavangelicals hear from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Speaking at another Washington venue yesterday, Bush pushed back on the view that going negative wins votes.

JEB BUSH: I would argue that Republicans win when we are positive and hopeful and aspirational and that we draw people towards our cause when we do that. And that if we just play the game that we're for less government, you know, we don't believe in a muscular government, that message is not aspirational. It's not very hopeful. It's not particularly optimistic, and we could lose.

WELNA: A good start for Republicans, Bush added, would be to pass the immigration bill.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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