Rep. Tom Perriello was one of the casualties of faith voters' dramatic favoring of Republicans in the 2010 elections.
White Catholic voters, who were hit hard by the economy, swung dramatically toward the GOP, by 18 points earlier this month. In comparison, Democrats won white Catholic voters narrowly in 2006 and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won them by only 5 points in the 2008 presidential contest.
To some Democratic strategists, the party’s setbacks among various faith groups are deeper than the economic downturn.
“It just reinforced what we learned when we were winning, just from the side of losing this time,” said Democratic consultant Eric Sapp of the Eleison Group. “It matters when we engage these folks.”
There was no national outreach to faith voters this year, even though Democrats in past years managed a robust operation, with Howard Dean targeting evangelicals while running the Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign having a strong faith program in 2008. But 2010 candidates were left to build their own infrastructure.
Two years ago, Tom Perriello talked extensively about his faith, framed his public service in the light of his faith background and defeated Virginia GOP Rep. Virgil Goode, 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent. But his campaign just wasn’t the same.
“They did virtually all of the same things but didn’t have nearly the kind of impetus as 2008,” said Loyola Marymount University sociology professor Rebecca Sager, who was embedded in both of Perriello’s Congressional campaigns for an upcoming book she is writing.
In both races, the Democrat ran his Common Good Summer Fellows program and campaign staff tithed a portion of their time to community service, but neither had the same emphasis or coordination as in 2008.
Other aspects were completely different. According to Sager, Perriello’s 2008 campaign team was born out of the same progressive faith movement, while this year’s staff had the look, feel and personnel of a more traditional political campaign.
One former Perriello campaign aide admitted that “more pressing issues” took over during the campaign but that the behind-the-scenes faith outreach never stopped. According to local ministers that Sager talked with in Virginia’s 5th district, this year’s Perriello campaign “just didn’t get it.”
Perriello lost his re-election race 51 percent to 47 percent to state Sen. Robert Hurt (R).
So where do Democrats go from here?
This cycle, the party’s use of faith was dramatically different from the past two election cycles. Previously, Democrats tried a positive approach, touting their own candidates’ credentials to the faith community and framing issues in moral terms.
But this year, with their backs against the wall, the Democratic approach was either nonexistent or embodied by Jack Conway’s television ad in the Kentucky Senate race that accused GOP nominee Rand Paul of being affiliated with a group in college that mocked Christianity and Christ as well as tied up a woman and forced her to worship a false idol named Aqua Buddha.