Consensus of a dozen evangelical leaders: Huckabee is the most viable social conservative in the 2016 race

Primary season’s not officially under way until someone publishes the quadrennial “divided social cons trying to unite behind single candidate” story. Here you go. Let the campaign begin!

Mike Huckabee’s more viable than Scott Walker, huh?.

Some on the Christian right remain skeptical of the effort to settle on a single socially conservative candidate. Similar attempts in 2008 and 2012 collapsed because no consensus was reached, they say. And it is unclear what impact an endorsement by national social conservatives would have on a primary competition that will probably be driven by abundant outside money, debate performances and long months of retail campaigning…

The yearning for a single conservative contender to unite behind was perhaps most in evidence last month when a dozen leaders of evangelical and other groups gathered for a half-day conference to discuss possible candidates in Dana Point, Calif…

The session culminated in a vote for “the most viable candidate.” The result, projected on a screen at the front of a conference room, showed Mr. Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, as the winner. In a three-way tie for second were Mr. Perry, Mr. Jindal and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, according to a cellphone photo of the results shared with The New York Times.

Ted Cruz didn’t crack the top four? Granted, he hadn’t announced his candidacy at the time that vote was held, but neither had any of the other four mentioned and it was clear even then that eventually they’d all be in the race. The fact that he finished behind Jindal, who’s basically an asterisk in polling right now, suggests that even prominent members of Cruz’s own base don’t think he’s electable. I don’t know how else to interpret that result.

As for Huck, as much as HA readers may sneer at him, he does poll consistently well among Republican voters, especially on basic measures like favorability. GOPers like him, his name recognition is sky high thanks to his 2008 run and his Fox News gig, and he’s charming enough to enjoy a cordial relationship even with lefties as stalwart as Jon Stewart. As a matter of raw retail politics, it’s not crazy to think he’s more viable than most of his social-con competitors. His problem is that, unlike Walker, Jindal, and Perry, he’s seen as a niche candidate by most voters — and to his credit, he knows that and is working to fix it.

Obviously it makes more sense to back a guy who’s scrambling to be seen as viable by the rest of the GOP electorate than three guys who are already seen that way. Wait, what?

Eh, doesn’t matter. It’s fantasy to think social conservatives will unite this year of all years when they’ve got so many strong options to choose from. The pickings were slim in 2008 — Huck was still relatively unknown and Fred Thompson never got going — and then slimmer in 2012 after Perry flamed out, leaving Santorum as the only real game in town. This year they’ve got an embarrassment of riches, not just with Cruz, Jindal, Walker, Perry, and Huck but with a variety of other candidates who are themselves plenty social conservative even if it’s not at the very core of his brand. Marco Rubio’s running mainly as a “foreign-policy candidate” but he’s one of the party’s most eloquent speakers against abortion. Rand Paul will be caricatured by his enemies as a libertarian hippie in disguise but, last I checked, he’s no different than Cruz on gay marriage and life issues. Even Jeb Bush, the RINO bete noire whose candidacy has evangelicals organizing to stop him, famously tried to intervene on Terri Schiavo’s behalf as governor of Florida. The most viable socially conservative candidate in the field this year is whoever the most viable candidate generally is. Which means maybe it’s time for evangelicals to get behind, er, Jeb.

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Jazz Shaw 12:01 PM on February 01, 2023