When Kent Spann, a 55-year-old Baptist pastor, called from Knox County in central Ohio on Friday, he had to use a Bluetooth headset: His hands were gripping the steering wheel of a sky-blue RV decorated with images of smiling families along with the words, “Awake 88 tour. Vote your values.”
Since July, the RV—a 2005 Winnebago on a Ford chassis—has traveled the entire state, covering 14,000 miles and stopping at about 2,000 churches, many in rural locations dotted with farms. Once, the RV got stuck at the bottom of a hill after a paved road turned into gravel and then dirt. It had to be towed out.
“We’ve seen things in Ohio I never dreamed I would see in Ohio,” said Spann, who drives the vehicle with his wife, Cindy, alongside. They’ve learned Ohio has hills, not just flatland: “There are places Verizon doesn’t go.”
Spann is a “pastoral liaison” for Citizens for Community Values (CCV), a Cincinnati-based group leading the Awake 88 campaign, a $200,000 effort to bring conservative voters from all 88 Ohio counties to the polls next Tuesday. The campaign is one of the ways conservative groups like CCV hope to reach evangelicals and other religious conservatives in rural Ohio, who they believe can bring the state into Republican Mitt Romney’s fold. Rural and evangelical voters helped George W. Bush win Ohio in 2004, but thousands stayed home in 2008. Conservative strategists hope that doesn’t happen this year.
“The vision was, we’ve got to get back out and engage the church,” Spann told me as he drove. “When evangelicals come out and vote their biblical values, values win.”
For Awake 88, the strategy has been to meet with pastors personally, encouraging them to speak up in their churches about moral issues such as abortion, traditional marriage, and religious freedom. Phil Burress, the president of CCV, along with Spann and other pastors involved in the effort, have been driving the RV, hosting regional and county conferences, and knocking—unannounced—on church doors these past few months, handing out brochures, voter’s guides that fit inside bulletins, and DVDs encouraging Christians to vote their values.
The Family Research Council, a CCV affiliate, has contributed some of the materials, such as copies of its “Culture Impact Team Manual,” intended to help churches form teams that can keep other church members informed of political issues. Alliance Defending Freedom has contributed brochures explaining what pastors can or can’t say from the pulpit without endangering their church’s tax-exempt status.
“I know the power of evangelicals in the voter’s booth,” said Tim Throckmorton, a Nazarene pastor from Circleville who helped launch Awake 88. Pastors have shown overwhelming enthusiasm in response to the campaign, he said.
When I reached Burress, CCV’s president, on his cell phone this week, he was in a bank wiring money to Wapakoneta, a town in northwest Ohio, to pay for a newspaper ad. Burress’ group has run a full-page ad in 97 rural newspapers (and five Amish papers) that features a couple on a farm, with the headline, “When rural Ohio speaks, Ohio families win.”
“It’s all about rural Ohio,” Burress said. With only 16 counties in the state solidly blue, and 72 red, Burress said the number of rural county voters who arrive at the polls would determine the presidential election in Ohio. “Ohio’s a center-right state. The only way the left’s going to win is if the right stays home.”
Targeting rural communities, Burress’ group has even crafted a newspaper ad aimed specifically at the state’s Amish, who sometimes vote on referenda issues but rarely vote for candidates. Burress said large numbers of Amish voted in 2004 to help Ohio approve a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and woman.
Beyond ads and RVs, CCV has mailed or hand delivered voters guides to 10,000 churches and organized six call centers, where 300 to 400 volunteers made 900,000 calls in the past two weeks to undecided voters, identified from a computer database of 8.4 million Ohio registered voters. Burress said his call team captain told him a few days ago that the undecided voters they had spoken to were swinging toward Gov. Romney 2-to-1.
CCV isn’t the only conservative values group active in Ohio: The red and blue “Values Bus,” sponsored by The Heritage Foundation and FRC Action, the legislative arm of the Family Research Council, was scheduled to arrive in West Chester, near Cincinnati, on Friday evening at a rally for Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan. The bus planned to stop on Saturday at Ohio State University—where staff would hand out literature after the Buckeyes football game—and on Sunday morning at Living Word Church in Vandalia, where FRC President Tony Perkins was scheduled to preach.
Another conservative organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, headed by Ralph Reed, has been coordinating paid workers and volunteers this week to make calls and put 1 million voter’s guides in 5,300 Ohio churches by Sunday.
Earlier in the presidential race, some wondered whether Ohio’s evangelical voters would coalesce around Romney, said Chris Long, president of the Ohio Christian Alliance. In the Ohio GOP presidential primary, Long said, most counties supported former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. “That all seems to be a distant memory now.”
Since then, Long said, Santorum has returned to Ohio to “mend the fence” by campaigning for Romney—a step Long believes has contributed to the biggest shift in support for a candidate he’s ever seen. Although one pastor told him over the summer that his church members were “not really sure about Mr. Romney,” the same pastor told him a few weeks ago, “It’s a big difference now. Our people are on board.”
Long said getting voter’s guides into people’s hands—the Ohio Christian Alliance has printed around 800,000 this election season, with another 200,000 downloaded from its website—has helped them see the clear contrasts between Romney and President Barack Obama on issues like abortion, taxes, religious liberty, and parental choice in education. Conservatives also perked up when, in May, President Obama gave a personal endorsement of gay “marriage,” Long said—something Romney opposes.
Since 1991, the Ohio Christian Alliance has mainly represented evangelicals. This year, for the first time, the organization has produced a voter’s guide aimed at Catholics. The two faith groups are finding common ground in opposing threats to religious liberty.
“We’re seeing newly formed alliances between Catholics and evangelicals addressing the [healthcare law’s contraceptive] mandate,” Long said. “We’ve always worked together in the past, but not at this level.”
Long’s group has several thousand liaisons scattered in churches in every Ohio county. He is encouraging volunteers on Saturday to help the elderly or handicapped vote by offering them car rides to the polls.
Meanwhile, Spann, the RV driver, around midday Friday crossed the border into Marion County—the final county in the Awake 88 tour. I asked what he was thinking.
“What’s next?” he said. Completing the four-month tour felt bittersweet, since he and his wife had enjoyed the journey. But he had a personal motive pushing him forward. His granddaughter, Emery Jean, was just born in April: “What kind of world—what kind of country—will she be living in?”