While most election results came in Tuesday night, it was not until Saturday morning, appropriately, that we discovered where values voters stood. In a front-page story in The Washington Post, Alan Cooperman concluded that the "God gap" had "narrowed substantially" in American politics. For a local perspective, Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News concluded that the Democratic electoral sweep of the local county "may have had as much to do" with local churches as it did with Bush and Iraq.
In a way, if you want to understand how politics really works in this country, read the piece by Weiss. It's at the local level. Big, national, headline-grabbing issues motivate the local levels, so for that perspective, read Cooperman's piece. He talked to everyone from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention to David Barton of WallBuilders and drew some big conclusions based on a few key numbers.
Cooperman worked the Big Conflict into the nut graph and allows the debate to develop itself throughout the rest of the piece. The Big Conflict, of course, is whether Democrats picked up values voters from the GOP or the GOP lost those voters:
Religious liberals contended that a concerted effort by Democrats since 2004 to appeal to people of faith had worked minor wonders, if not electoral miracles, in races across the country.
Religious conservatives disagreed, arguing that the Republican Party lost religious voters rather than the Democrats winning them.
Either way, the national exit polls told a dramatic story of changing views in the pews: Democrats recaptured the Catholic vote they had lost two years ago. They sliced the GOP's advantage among weekly churchgoers to 12 percentage points, down from 18 points in 2004 congressional races and 22 points in the 2004 presidential contest. Democrats even siphoned off a portion of the Republican Party's most loyal base, white evangelical Protestants.
Cooperman's numbers are crucial to the crux of his piece. While a seven-point shift in the number of white evangelicals voting Republican vs. Democrat between 2004 and 2006 may not seem like a lot, it matters in close elections. The shift can be more profoundly felt at the local level in close races like the Virginia or Tennessee Senate races.
Cooperman's article comes up short on listing the issues that moved these pew voters to vote Democratic. One could say that it was an attempt to send a message about Iraq. Others could say it was the "culture of corruption." But will these issues keep those values voters in the Democratic fold? Here's the Los Angeles Times:
Still, the issues of abortion and guns underscore the tough decisions facing Reid and Pelosi as they try to please the party's core supporters while appealing to centrist voters.
The party's winning formula this year, after all, required candidacies from cultural conservatives such as Rep.-elect Heath Shuler in western North Carolina and Sens.-elect Jon Tester in Montana and Jim Webb in Virginia.
And while in campaigning Democrats were all about appealing to the centrist voters, the base of the party is going to demand results.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which advocates abortion rights, pointed to victories by like-minded candidates in conservative states and a rejection by South Dakota voters of an abortion ban. The result, the group says, should be that Democrats view their causes as mainstream, rather than part of a liberal agenda, and should devote more money to contraception and other family-planning options opposed by religious conservatives and scaled back by the administration.
"I honestly believe there was no bigger winner in this election than Planned Parenthood Action Fund and women's health," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, referring to the group's political arm.
Did Democrats take power in Congress with values voters acting as a tipping point? I don't think it's conclusive, but one thing is for sure: the base of the party is going to push the party to make policy decisions that could jeopardize whatever gains the party achieved among those values voters.