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By David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Christian right launched a host of Republican stars, from Pat Robertson’s surprising bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 to Mike Huckabee’s in 2008 and Rick Santorum’s in 2012.

None ever managed to win the nomination, let alone the presidency. Now heading into the 2016 race, evangelical Christian voters face a crucial test to maintain even their limited influence.

Already, Republican voters sent a clear signal in congressional primaries last year that they preferred more mainstream candidates. Republicans give most of their early support for the 2016 presidential nomination to center-right figures such as 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, not evangelicals such as Huckabee or Santorum. And evangelical voters already are losing ground on the pivotal issue of same-sex marriage, with growing numbers of Americans supporting it and many Republican leaders signaling they don’t want to fight it.

To be sure, the religious right still has some influence. The evangelical community is politically sophisticated and influential in some places such as Iowa, expected to host the first nomination contest about a year from now. The first big gathering of prospective candidates, Jan. 24 in Des Moines, is being organized by the Iowa Freedom Summit, which promotes “core conservative principles” that include “social conservatism.”

But even if an evangelical wins Iowa, as Huckabee did in 2008 and Santorum did in 2012, the appeal is limited. The next stop is the New Hampshire primary, where Christian-right favorites are a “foreign species,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Ditto in other states that matter in the nominating process, from Nevada to Florida and beyond.

Last year, many Republican congressional candidates won as center-right candidates after first defeating opponents in primaries who had strong Christian-right support, such as Senate hopefuls Chris McDaniel in Mississippi and Paul Broun in Georgia.

That’s just the Republican primaries. The challenge gets much tougher in general elections.

Today’s landscape strongly favors other candidates. White evangelicals and born-again Christians are usually about one-fourth of the nationwide electorate, and they usually break at least three-to-one for Republicans. But that vote alone won’t mean victory for Republicans.

Some Republicans have embraced Christian conservatives without being branded as theological candidates. George W. Bush, in the 2000 campaign, spoke openly about his deep faith.

Others work around the religious wing. John McCain skipped the 2007 Iowa straw poll, an intently watched summertime barometer of political strength, and made no effort in the 2008 caucus. He easily beat Huckabee in the New Hampshire primary and the next conservative test, South Carolina, and went on to win the nomination.

“I don’t know if you should skip it this time,” he said of Iowa, “but I showed you could still come in fifth out of five and move on.”

Most ominously for this year’s crop of religious-right Republicans is the new challenge of same-sex marriage.

“We believe marriage is a permanent, lifelong commitment between a man and a woman,” says the Family Leader, an influential Iowa group. The Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition has similar views, including support of “non-familial adoption by heterosexual married couples consisting of one man and one woman.”

“If a candidate isn’t solid on marriage, I don’t see how they can win the nomination,” said Steve Scheffler, the group’s president. Ralph Reed, the national group’s chairman, said “there will be no avoiding this issue” in the 2016 race.

Most potential candidates hope to do just that. After the Supreme Court’s October decision rejecting appeals from states aiming to bar same-sex marriage, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said, “For us, it’s over.” Jeb Bush is urging respect for gays in committed relationships.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky says it’s a state issue. Christie, who’s opposed same-sex marriage, has said he’d “vigorously” enforce the court’s ruling allowing such unions. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann, a religious-right favorite who won the 2011 straw poll, said same-sex marriage wasn’t an issue in the 2014 elections.

Several potential 2016 presidential candidates do remain vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage. Christian-right leaders stress that position isn’t a political death sentence for other voters; it’s one issue among many, and people will take a broader look at candidates.

“We’re interested in a full spectrum conservative,” said Bob Vander Plaats, Family Leader president. The Iowa-based group plans six candidate forums this year, starting March 23 in Sioux Center.

The Christian right’s biggest problem might be its own insistence on ideological purity. Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Santorum routinely stress economic issues along with their fealty to social issues, and have come under some fire from conservative groups.

“In a year in which GOP voters appear likely to have several good pro-economic growth candidates to choose from, Mike Huckabee’s big-government record would stand out from the crowd, and not in a good way,” said David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth.

While he was governor of Arkansas, Huckabee backed several tax increases. Santorum was criticized during the 2012 campaign by those who said he’d voted for too much spending as a senator from Pennsylvania.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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