Is supporting Kim Davis the path to evangelical votes?

Two GOP presidential candidates met with the Kentucky county clerk Tuesday. Ms. Davis, who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, was freed later that day.

Chris Tilley/Reuters
Kim Davis, flanked by Republic presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (l.) and and Attorney Mathew Staver (r.), speaks to her supporters after walking out of jail in Grayson, Ky. Sept. 8. US District Judge David Bunning ordered her release, saying she 'shall not interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, with the efforts of her deputy clerks to issue marriage licenses to all legally eligible couples.'

Kim Davis will be going back to work this week in the Rowan County clerk's office.

She walked out of jail Tuesday, five days after being jailed for contempt, a religious and political symbol, a crowd of hundreds cheering her and two Republican presidential candidates voicing their support.

With “Eye of the Tiger” blaring in front of the Carter County Detention Center, Ms. Davis met former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on stage. He raised her arms in triumph. 

“I feel like she’s shown more courage than most every politician I know and most every pastor I know,” Huckabee told reporters. “She was willing to go to jail for what she believed. She has ignited something across this country.”

Davis, an Apostolic Christian, has become a political lightning rod in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision in June legalizing same-sex marriage. And two GOP candidates appear hopeful that they can bottle some of that lightning, experts say. Mr. Huckabee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – who both find themselves on the fringes of a crowded Republican field – are trying to use the media storm around Davis to boost their own profiles, says Jonathan Merritt, a senior columnist for the Religion News Service and author of several books on Christianity, culture, and politics.

US District Judge David Bunning, who jailed Davis for contempt of court last Thursday for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, ordered her freed, saying that he was satisfied that her deputies were complying with the law. Friday marked the first day that same-sex couples received licenses in Rowan County.

in a two-page order, Judge Bunning said she was released on the condition she not “interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, with the efforts of her deputy clerks to issue marriage licenses to all legally eligible couples.” If she does interfere, Bunning wrote, “appropriate sanctions” will be considered.

Huckabee, a Republican nominee for president who helped organize the rally (dubbed the “#ImWithKim” rally), met with Davis in the jailhouse prior to the rally. Senator Cruz, who began courting Evangelicals early on in his campaign, met with Davis Tuesday as well and attended the rally, tweeting his support.

White evangelical Christians comprise about 40 percent of Republican primary voters, and nearly 60 percent of Iowa caucusgoers.

Winning the votes of evangelical Christians has been vital for Republicans for decades, and they have proved particularly influential in early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina where they can have an outsized influence. By themselves, though, they don't equal a nomination.

“Attracting only evangelical voters has never been a recipe for victory,” says Mr. Merritt.

Huckabee himself rode the evangelical vote to a surprise victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and five state primaries after that, before losing the nomination to Sen. John McCain. But since 2008, Huckabee has done little to broaden his appeal beyond his evangelical base, writes Nate Cohn in The New York Times, and while he could again become “a favorite of an influential wing of the party – someone who can lead polls and even win states” he is still “highly unlikely to win the nomination.”

Complicating matters further, the evangelical community that carried Huckabee in his last campaign is not the evangelical community that exists now, Merritt says. The size and strength of the evangelical vote may not be waning, he adds, but it may be splintering.

“It is more helpful to ask about evangelical voting blocs than the evangelical voting bloc today,” he says.

For evidence, one need look no further than the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, a bombastic billionaire who, with his three marriages and recent history of being “very pro-choice," appears in some ways the exact opposite of their ideal candidate.

Most evangelical leaders “have an outspoken disdain for Donald Trump,” Merritt says, but grass-roots Evangelicals continue to voice their support for him. 

While Trump enjoys double-digit support among evangelical voters, an Aug. 31 Monmouth poll found that more Iowa Evangelicals favor Ben Carson. The retired neurosurgeon polled support from 29 percent of religious conservatives to Trump’s 23 percent.

Still, Merritt believes that they will eventually coalesce behind one Republican candidate. By supporting Davis, Cruz and Huckabee are allying themselves with only a fraction of evangelical voters, he adds.

“I think the average voter, Republican evangelical and otherwise, recognizes that there are more important conversations to be had in this country than a single county clerk in Kentucky,” he says.

These conversations include everything from the persecution of Christians abroad by the Islamic State and Boko Haram to immigration reform, which 62 percent of white evangelical voters say they support, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey.

Most clerks across the country, whatever their religious beliefs, are issuing marriage licenses. The Davis case, Merritt says, “is an outlier.”

“I think when you have presidential candidates who attempt to use an outlier to bolster political support, it often instead communicates a sort of desperation to voters,” he says. “There is a kind of evangelical that is consumed with the Kim Davis spectacle right now, and I think candidates like Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are hell-bent on capturing the hearts and minds of those voters.”

“But if that is their strategy for winning the Republican nomination, I think it is a losing one.”

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