The great expectations of conservatives for increasing their hold over Congress sustained a stunning blow November 3. Republicans lost five seats in the House of Representatives, and in January will hold only a slim 223-to-217 majority. Republicans retained their 55-to-45 edge in the Senate.

The GOP, citing political fallout from President Clinton's sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky (CT, Oct. 26, 1998, p. 80), had high hopes of picking up as many as 40 congressional seats. But an unexpected voter backlash in the wake of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report to Congress contributed to the Republicans' worst showing in 64 years by a party not holding the presidency. Not since 1934 had the President's party picked up congressional seats in an off-year election.

Despite an unprecedented push to get out the vote by the Christian Coalition, including rides to the polls, many in the Religious Right simply stayed home. The turnout of voters identifying with the Religious Right dropped 10 to 20 percent from the last election, according to numerous surveys. Further, a Christian Coalition exit poll showed the support of "religious conservatives" for Republicans dropped to 54 percent from the 1994 level of 66 percent.

"Evangelicals have good reason to be cynical about the GOP," says sociologist Christian Smith, author of the new book American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (University of Chicago Press). If the GOP does not move any of the Christian Right's issues through Congress, Smith says, the movement loses steam and its leaders lose credibility with their rank and file.

The poor showing and subsequent grumbling among Republican lawmakers spurred Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich—who had made repeated and bold predictions ...

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