As part of the Democratic Party’s ongoing effort to reconnect with people of faith, Senate leaders are crafting a communications strategy to reach out to religious-oriented media outlets ranging from popular television programs to small Christian radio stations.
The communications plan is part of a broader endeavor being undertaken by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to convince religious voters that the Democratic Party best represents their values.
“Millions of Americans listen to religious broadcasting, and they are Democrats and Republicans and independents,” said Darrel Thompson, a senior Reid adviser. “They are our constituents. If we are serving our constituents properly we should be communicating to them in that venue.”
Specifically, Democrats are expected to focus on the radio dial, a medium that has attracted their attention in recent years with the introduction of the liberal radio network Air America and the success of progressive talk show host Ed Schultz. Inserting the Democratic voice into religious radio — a popular source of news and entertainment in the Midwest, South and rural areas — was discussed during a Democratic Policy Committee meeting attended by Rev. Tony Campolo last month.
“They were concerned about what can be done to get [information] to the religious community,” said Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa.
Campolo said during the conversation some Senators inquired about the feasibility of purchasing time on religious stations to help explain the Democratic agenda.
“Is there a possibility that we could put together an effort to be on religious radio stations, buy time and have programs that would critique the [GOP legislative] agenda from the Biblical perspective?” Campolo recalled some Senators asking.
Many Democrats charge that religious radio largely serves as a mouthpiece for President Bush’s political and policy goals — a belief Campolo said he thinks is valid.
“There is an image that goes across on religious radio that somehow George Bush was chosen by God to lead America back to some kind of high moral standard,” Campolo said. “They see the Republican Party as the only party that Christians can legitimately belong to.
“I think Christian radio and television has done an outstanding job propagating the Republican agenda and endorsing Republican candidates,” Campolo added.
Tom Tradup, director of network programming for Salem Radio Network, acknowledged that listeners to Christian radio stations tend to be older and fairly conservative, but added “at the end of the day they generally reflect the population as a whole.” Tradup, whose company is one of the premier Christian radio networks, said “most [Christian] talk shows” would be eager to have a Democrat on as a guest.
“I think the Democrats can make inroads anytime they are addressing issues that are of concern to the core constituencies of our radio stations,” Tradup said.
Campolo and other evangelicals are advising Democrats to emphasize the party’s commitment to the poor and the environment — topics they say are at the forefront of the Bible’s teachings. The media plan, which is in its formative stage, is likely to include tying specific legislative issues to Biblical teachings, booking Senators on religious media outlets and holding targeted conference calls with religious media organizations.
Reid even invited the Christian Broadcasting Network into his Nevada home in January for a sit-down interview.
“Obviously, we are reaching out to try and plan media events targeted to different communities,” Thompson said.
As for trying to link religion to legislation, Democrats have sought to portray Bush’s budget proposal as “immoral.”
But when it comes to the subjects of abortion and gay marriage, Democrats are unlikely to find a receptive audience from listeners of religious radio.
“I don’t know if there is a lot of common ground to be found on abortion and gay rights, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try,” Tradup said.
A Republican campaign official dismissed the Democratic effort and predicted the party’s message would be rejected outright by religious listeners.
“Is this the same Democrat Party that has been taken over by MoveOn.org?” said Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I’m not sure that opposing military action against Osama bin Laden will be a good issue to discuss on Christian radio.”
While Schultz said he understands why Democrats are trying to “develop a comprehensive strategy to leave no stone unturned,” he suggested the party would be better served to promote its message to “middle of the roaders.”
“Most of the people that listen to those religious broadcasts are not going to vote for Democrats,” he said. “I think the Democrats got to talk to Joe Beer Can.”
Still, senior aides to several Democratic Senators said they are pleased that Reid has made reaching out to faith voters a top priority.
“We think there are aspects of our own faith that need to be heard,” said a top staffer to a Senator who represents a heartland state.