Tue, Oct 28, 2008 - Page 9 News List

GOP sits on the edge of a long exile

In the US’ conservative heartland, the talk is not just of a win for Obama. Moderate Republicans fear a wipeout that would leave their party in the grip of out-of-touch evangelicals

By Paul Harris  /  THE GUARDIAN , GAINESVILLE, TEXAS

Voting for a Republican president runs in the blood of places like Gainesville. The pretty, little town of 15,000 sits in north Texas ranch country and it is safe to say that Democratic Senator Barack Obama has few fans here. Certainly Jim Farquhar, who works in the justice system, has taken to heart warnings that Obama has links with dangerous radicals, such as former 1960s militant Bill Ayers.

“Obama scares me. He has all these friendships. You just don’t know how that might affect him once he gets into office,” Farquhar said as he stood outside Gainsville’s sturdy old courthouse. “I’m voting for [Republican Senator] John McCain.”

Such worries are increasingly less common among other Americans. Weeks of relentless attacks on Obama by McCain and his running mate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin have not succeeded in denting Obama’s lead. Instead it has strengthened. Across the US, battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania are falling into Obama’s column and southern states such as Virginia and North Carolina are going from red to blue. Some Democratic insiders are even whispering about the prospect of a landslide.

The flipside of that is a potentially devastating Republican loss. If current polling holds true, the party may be reduced to its core support in the solid red heartland that runs through Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia and other southern and western states. That would trigger a profound crisis for a party that just three years ago was basking in the afterglow of a convincing presidential win and dreaming of creating a “permanent majority.”

Now that same Republican Party could face a prolonged period in the political wilderness, working out how to appeal to a US public that seems prepared to send a pro-life, black senator from Chicago to the White House and reject a conservative Republican war hero.

“The Republican Party is going to have to work out what sort of party it actually wants to be. It’s a changing world for them,” said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside. “It might not be easy. A powerful Democratic win could wipe out Republican moderates. It could leave the party in the grip of its conservative and evangelical base who remain critical of figures such as McCain but who are wildly enthusiastic about politicians such as Palin. The Republican Party could end up in a bitter civil war for its political future.”

One of the key battlegrounds in that conflict will be the role of religion in Republican politics. The evangelical base has been a key part of the political coalition that has brought the party such success in recent years. Political guru Karl Rove cemented evangelical ideas into US President George W. Bush’s brand of conservatism and used them to inspire a very effective “get out the vote” team in elections.

Rove focused on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion as a way of ensuring fanatical evangelical support. Nothing came to symbolize the power of the evangelical movement more than the rise of mega-churches, especially in staunchly Republican areas. These enormous edifices now dot the landscape of many states and Texas is no exception.

In the northern Dallas suburb of Prosper, a new mega-church has just opened. It is called Prestonwood North and is a branch of its mother church a few kilometers south in Plano, a fast-growing city of some 260,000 people. At first glance, the church looks like a sparkling new office development, identical to many other buildings popping up on farmland as these “exurbs” of Dallas succumb to development. But the large cross on its front reveals the truth. Taken as a whole, Prestonwood now has almost 30,000 members, making it one of the largest churches in the US. It was recently named as one of the US’ 50 most influential churches.

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