LITTLETON, Colo. — Perched on the edge of his chair in a study overflowing with books, Pastor Gino Geraci reels off the Republicans he no longer believes in. His friend Mike Huckabee is an “odd bird” who couldn’t win a general election. Sarah Palin doesn’t inspire him with her “cliched responses to difficult questions.” Rand Paul is “fascinating but frustrating.”
Of all the Republicans weighing a bid for president in 2016, the only one who puts a smile on Geraci’s face is doctor-turned-conservative-media-darling Ben Carson. And yet, Geraci concedes, Carson is “not in the mainstream” and has little chance of ever being elected.
The assessment from Geraci, the founding pastor of Calvary South Denver, a sprawling evangelical church with several thousand congregants, reflects a broader sense of despair among white evangelicals about the Republican Party many once considered their comfortable home.
Many social conservatives say they feel politically isolated as the country seems to be hurtling to the left, with marijuana now legal in Colorado and gay marriage gaining ground across the nation. They feel out of place in a GOP increasingly dominated by tea party activists and libertarians who prefer to focus on taxes and the role of government and often disagree with social conservatives on drugs or gay rights.
Meanwhile, the list of possible front-runners for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has a limited relationship with evangelical activists, and the libertarian-leaning Paul, the senator from Kentucky who only recently began reaching out to social conservatives. One prominent establishment favorite weighing a bid, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is a supporter of legal same-sex marriage who claims his views on the issue could help him and his party appeal to younger voters.
The disconnect between social conservatives and the GOP has become a “chasm,” said Gary Bauer, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and is now head of the Campaign for Working Families. He pointed to the party’s two most recent presidential nominees, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, as examples of candidates who were touted initially as having broad appeal to centrists in the general election but ultimately never inspired evangelicals and lost.
“Values voters have been treated as the stepchildren of the family, while the party has wanted to get on with so-called more electorally popular ideas,” Bauer said. “The Republican base will not tolerate another candidate foisted upon us as a guy who can win.”
Discontent among evangelicals could have implications for the GOP next year as campaigning for the presidential nomination escalates in early-voting states such as Iowa, where social conservatives are a major bloc. Their presence could complicate matters for top-tier candidates such as Christie and Paul who want to remain viable in a general election but will feel pressure to appeal to religious voters. A surge of support for more fiery contenders such as Carson or former senator Rick Santorum, R-Pa., could turn candidate debates into a spectacle while pulling everyone to the right, affecting the party’s image more broadly.
Even if social conservatives turn out this year to support like-minded candidates for Congress and help propel the GOP into the Senate majority, they could just as easily decide to sit out a presidential race if they feel the party again has produced a nominee who does not represent their interests.
Their absence could mean fewer votes for the Republican nominee in closely contested swing states. And perhaps more important, it could also mean fewer campaign volunteers to staff phone banks and knock on doors. Active churchgoers can be among a campaign’s most effective ground army.
The feelings of disaffection are a decade in the making. Social conservatives, who make up about 40 percent of the Republican electorate, according to polls, fell in love with George W. Bush in 2000. They mobilized for Bush’s re-election four years later after he endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But many activists felt Bush’s team did not push hard enough on moral issues in his second term. Since then, evangelical Republicans have not coalesced enthusiastically around a viable contender for the presidency.
A number of possible 2016 candidates have been jockeying to become the evangelicals’ favorite – including Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, as well as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Paul and Santorum.
Huckabee used a gathering of pastors this month in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to express his amusement that some Republicans seem unwilling to discuss moral issues. He warned the private gathering, according to an account in the Des Moines Register, that “liberty cannot function unless there are people who are willing to live with integrity.”
Huckabee was not available for an interview. He cautioned in a statement, delivered through a spokesman, that the Republican Party “should not take these voters for granted, because as we’ve seen in the past two elections, if the candidates don’t connect with the values voters, 1/8the voters3/8 will simply stay home.”
Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa activist who hosted several 2016 hopefuls at his Family Leadership Summit this month in Ames, described an exhilarating energy among the 1,500 attendees and a “desperation to ensure we succeed not just in 2016 but in 2014, too.”
In Colorado, Geraci said he and his congregation feel “an angst, in the purest psychological sense of the term.” The pastor sought to inject some degree of optimism, adding: “It’s troubling but not paralyzing. There is a great deal of hope, connected to the possibility that real change will come.”
Even so, as members of Calvary South Denver milled about before a recent talk at the church by author Joel Rosenberg on the turmoil in the Middle East, many Republicans expressed concerns about who will take up their causes in the next presidential election.
Kim Vantrease, a writer, said she does not believe the Republican Party will address her main worries – the “moral decline” at home and “the whole world being on fire.”
“I would like to see Republican leaders try a little bit better to work together,” she said. “They should be strong, come out fiercely and not use strategy to get elected.” She said they should “actually care for America.”
A Republican since the early 1970s, Randall Cohrs, a research professor at the University of Colorado, said he hopes that the next generation of Republican politicians will “live up to the goals that the founding fathers of the party had in mind.” Cores could not name a candidate he would back in 2016.
Lynda Watters, an accountant who said she was “ashamed” of her political affiliations but usually votes Republican, is concerned about the future of the country, for her children’s sake. “I think we’re following in the footsteps of Europe towards socialism,” she said.
Scott Terry said he feels the Republican Party is lost. A mortgage salesman, Terry was previously a Paul fan but became concerned over “how much he goes back and forth.”
But Terry has someone in mind for 2016: “I love Dr. Ben Carson. He has common sense and the Christian perspective.”
Many people attending the Rosenberg evening had no preferred candidate in mind for president or brought up Carson.
The African American former surgeon became a sensation in conservative circles in 2013 after proclaiming the Affordable Care Act was the “worst thing to happen to this nation since slavery.”
Despite a lack of political experience, Carson, 62, has built up a media profile, thanks to his regular appearances in conservative news outlets. He came in third in the straw poll at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference and is undertaking a national book tour this month titled “One Nation” – which has sold more copies than Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Hard Choices.” Carson has formed a political action committee, also called One Nation, and a super PAC to draft Carson to run for president – doling out “Run Ben Run!” bumper stickers – has brought in $7.3 million in this cycle.
The buzz around Carson underscores the unsettled nature of the GOP’s social-conservative wing. Even as Carson gains traction, some activists fear that evangelicals risk pouring time, money and hope into another doomed candidate, as some did in 2012 with Santorum.
David Lane, an evangelical activist and founder of the American Renewal Project, which organizes church pastors in key states, said he does not have much time for Carson. Lane arranged Huckabee’s appearance with clergy in Cedar Rapids last week and has introduced pastors to Paul, Jindal and Perry.
“Anyone who votes for Ben Carson has no idea what they are doing politically,” Lane said. “He’s got zero chance of becoming president or getting the Republican nomination.”
Carson, in an interview, accused the Republican Party of turning its back on some of its core supporters.
“In the rush to get on the political-correctness bandwagon, people have abandoned the concept of faith,” he said. “That is where the disconnect is.”
Throughout his book tour, Carson said, he has been “overwhelmed” at the size of the crowds. Hundreds crammed a North Carolina bookstore this month to meet him; a video posted online by supporters features interviews with attendees begging Carson to run for president.
“People are very concerned about the future of the nation and the quality of life on the trajectory we are on,” Carson said. “They have lost faith in government.”