Fired McCain Campaign Aides Sound Off
Two former aides hired to spearhead religious outreach for presidential candidate John McCain say that they were virtually ignored by the campaign and that McCain's top campaign strategists are intent on winning votes of religious voters without having to develop serious ties to faith communities. The aides, who were fired in early April after roughly three months on the job, said the campaign staff declined to return scores of their phone calls and E-mail messages, denied them access to leaders of the McCain campaign, and pressed them to collect church directoriesa controversial tacticas the centerpiece of a strategy to woo "values" voters.
"In the end, you came away with the strong sense that they had contempt for the faith-based community," says Marlene Elwell, one of those fired staffers. Elwell, a prominent Christian-right activist, was hired by McCain in December 2006 to be national director of his "Americans of Faith" coalition. "The way we were being treated it was as if we had leprosy."
The McCain campaign said the aides' dismissals were performance-related and were part of a broader staff reshuffling earlier this spring that grew from weaker-than-expected fundraising.
"We have the opposite of contemptwe have a great deal of affection for that [faith] community and a desire to help them understand that [McCain] is a good candidate for them," says Bob Heckman, senior consultant for the McCain campaign on conservative outreach.
But the other fired staffer, Judy Haynesa former top Christian Coalition official hired to work under Elwellhad an assessment similar to Elwell's, saying in a separate interview that the campaign exhibited "a contempt for Christians."
"It's an attitude about the Christian community that they don't like to have to do [outreach] but that they need to do it," Haynes said, referring to the McCain campaign's religious outreach plan. "Like, if we can get what we want without having to get too close [to religious people] and not make a big display, we'll do it."
Haynes said she was particularly disturbed by what she called the campaign's overreliance on collecting church directories as an organizing strategy. "The campaign plan to get the [religious] vote is to rape and pillage the church [membership] lists, and we didn't want to do that."
A source close to the McCain campaign said that Elwell and Haynes were hired as a package and that the rift between the pair and the campaign hinged on opposing visions for religious outreach. The source said Elwell wanted to hire dozens of field staffers to do church-by-church organizing at a cost of millions of dollars. The campaign, the source said, favored an effort built on wooing state and regional religious leaders and relying on volunteers to organize individual churches.
The McCain campaign's Heckman said that, far from exhibiting hostility to religious conservatives, McCain speaks regularly with such prominent evangelical figures as former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, Southern Baptist Convention public policy chief Richard Land, and televangelist John Hagee. Heckman, himself a veteran of Bauer's 2000 presidential campaign, also noted that McCain has hired former Christian Coalition field director Guy Rodgers to help with national religious outreach and Marlys Popma, an evangelical Christian and former head of Iowa Right to Life, as a top Iowa staffer.