Struggling Christian Coalition Seeks To Regain Influence Through 2004 Elections

Once the nation's most powerful Religious Right group, the Christian Coalition now finds itself struggling for influence as the 2004 elections approach.

The group's membership and budget have dropped since it was cut loose by founder TV preacher Pat Robertson in 2000. Far-right politicians looking for access to the Religious Right are now more likely to approach the Family Research Council or Focus on the Family.

But the Coalition isn't out of the political picture yet. This year the group claims it will spend $4.2 million to target evangelical voters in 24 swing states. Drew McKissick, the Coalition's political director, told The Weekly Standard in January that targeted voters are more likely to vote for a more conservative candidate if they receive a phone call or literature from the Coalition.

The Standard claims the Coalition's approach can work, citing a study by a former professor at Wheaton College who found that 89 percent of evangelicals who received campaign literature voted for Bush in 2000. Only 64 percent of those who did not receive it voted for Bush.

But critics remain skeptical of claims that the Coalition can fire up an effective political machine again. They note that the Coalition has a history of lying about the number of voter guides it distributes and that it routinely inflated its membership figures in the 1990s.

Staffers at Americans United are also skeptical of the claim that the Coalition will spend $4.2 million on voter guide distribution, noting that the organization's entire annual budget has not reached $4 million in recent years. It remains unclear what the Coalition's budget was last year. Despite federal laws requiring non-profit groups to provide budgetary data, the Coalition has refused to release its financial data.

Effective voter guide distribution would also require a strong chapter network, and the Coalition's once-powerful network of state affiliates appears to be in disarray. Several have become inactive or outright collapsed in recent years.

Even in South Carolina, the home state of Coalition President Roberta Combs, the group's power appears to be waning. The South Carolina chapter's website domain name (www.scchristiancoalition.org) is currently for sale and is temporarily being occupied by an ad for an herbal product that claims to increase sexual response.

The Coalition can still muster a crowd in some states, however. In Georgia, home of former Coalition head Ralph Reed, about 700 people turned out for a Jan. 31 event featuring Reed, Gov. Sonny Purdue and ousted Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.

Also speaking at the event were three Republican candidates who hope to replace retiring Sen. Zell Miller.

The Coalition recently announced that it will hold a "Road to Victory" conference in Washington this year, September 24-26. The Coalition used to hold meetings every year but now tends to meet only during election years.