GOP presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry may join Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and other conservative figures during a two-day “Pastor Policy Briefing,” in Orlando, Fla., an October event being organized by David Lane, who also directed fundraising for Perry’s August prayer rally, “The Response.”
After it’s done, the Orlando event will live on as part of a two-hour compendium of similar pastor briefings, which will be sold for broadcast in homes and churches as part of a coordinated effort targeting unregistered Christian voters.
The Florida briefing mimics a pastor briefing held by the Iowa Renewal Project in Des Moines in March, which featured Mike Huckabee, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and GOP presidential contenders Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, as our sister site the Iowa Independent previously reported.
At least 14 states have held “renewal project” events, attracting nearly 10,000 pastors nationwide, including in Texas. Led by the influential evangelical organizer Lane in 2005, the Texas Restoration Project mobilized conservative pastors and their congregations to vote.
The series of meetings were held during a Perry reelection campaign, and no prospective candidate but the governor was invited to the meetings. The last event centered on celebrating Perry’s 2007 win.
The meetings have prompted legal scrutiny from watchdog groups in the past, which called on the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the legality of distributing candidate-specific voter guides, and whether the nonprofit financing the Texas briefings had urged churches to assist in Perry’s reelection campaign efforts — political activity that would have jeopardized the foundation’s tax-exempt status.
The Houston-based nonprofit Niemoller Foundation spent roughly $1.26 million to fund the six meetings, money doled out by a handful of major Perry campaign donors like San Antonio businessman James Leininger and Houston homebuilder Bob Perry. While some topics discussed at the event “appeared” to foster political intervention, the IRS eventually decided the group didn’t violate its tax-exempt status.
During the Iowa briefings Lane was quoted as saying, “What we’re doing with the pastor meetings is spiritual, but the end result is political. From my perspective, our country is going to hell because pastors won’t lead from the pulpits,” in an April New York Times story in which he is later described as “a stealth weapon for the right.”
Scheduled at Orlando’s Rosen Centre luxury hotel, the briefing features Dobson, Texas-based WallBuilders CEO and controversial U.S. historian David Barton, and former U.S. Rep. Bob McEwen, all of whom endorsed “The Response” in August. Like Perry, GOP presidential contender and former U.S. Speaker of the House Gingrich is invited but has yet to confirm his attendance.
If Perry and Gingrich do show up, their presence will likely make the Florida Pastor Policy Briefing closer in significance to the Iowa meetings, as both are high-profile Republican White House hopefuls. The influential briefings serve to galvanize dormant voters in the pews in preparation for the 2012 elections, a mission amplified by an ambitious new California-based voter mobilization effort, Champion the Vote.
Following “The Response,” American Family Association founder Don Wildmon sent a an email to those who’d registered for the event, encouraging them to become involved in the group’s effort to register 5 million new conservative Christian voters. To achieve the goal, Champion the Vote is asking 100,000 “champions” to register 50 people in their community, as The Texas Independent recently reported.
Bill Dallas, head of United in Purpose, the group leading the Champion the Vote initiative, has carefully crafted a voter mobilization model around the event by fusing repackaged media and a detailed data mining project to reach those committed unregistered Christian voters.
Dallas’ crew plans to film the meetings and edit them down to a two-hour session called “One Nation Under God.” The repackaged event will be aired on Nov. 12 and can then be purchased by “host” churches and individuals.
Dallas expects about 1,000 “house parties” and 200-300 churches to take part in the November event. The hosts are not only instructed to air the reformatted briefing but have undergone an intensive eight-week voter mobilization training session with Champion the Vote that include webinars, conference calls, newsletters and a training kit. The hosts make up Champion the Vote’s base — the “champions” assigned to reach out to the thousands of potential voters.
“Our last broadcast was to educate, this time we are specifically aiming to mobilize the faith community to get champions ready to help Christians register to vote,” said Dallas, referring to the group’s first foray into broadcast, the repackaging of the Iowa meeting.
A sophisticated data-mining project sets the group’s effort apart. Channeling the aid of United in Purpose’s affluent funders, tech-savvy Silicon Valley venture capitalists, the nonprofit organization built an exhaustive database out of purchased, leveraged and organic information. More than 100 million names are pitted against basic voter registration information and personal consumer facts from religious magazine subscriptions to conservative newsletter lists to determine which possible voters are “committed Christians.”
As a 501(c)4 corporation, Dallas’ nonprofit isn’t required to disclose its private funders, whom he described as “low-profile, wildly successful individuals” in the tech sector. A recent Los Angeles Times article uncovered some of the private figures bankrolling the effort, including Ken Eldred, a technology entrepreneur and friend of the American Family Association’s Wildmon.
The financier is now raising campaign cash for Perry’s presidential run, the Times reported. No stranger to backing Republican candidates, Eldred donated $1.1 million to GOP candidates since 2005, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Despite its connection with prominent conservative Republican candidates and right-wing figures, Dallas contends Champion the Vote is apolitical.
“We are nonpartisan; we are strongly about Christ. Our mission is not raising up individual candidates but about registering voters,” said Dallas.