Gene Mills

Rev. Gene Mills

Bloomberg’s called Tuesday’s special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama a “Hobson’s choice” for the Republicans because of the party’s association with Roy Moore, the 70-year-old Republican candidate recently accused of hitting on teenage girls as a man in his 30s.

Even though Moore has vehemently denied the claims, The New York Times and other national newspapers report party leaders are warning of “a fierce backlash” among voters in the 2018 midterm elections, in which the GOP majority in the U.S. House and Senate are at stake.

Some Republican senators oppose Moore’s election. Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy is one. Others want the process to play out, including an ethics investigation, before deciding. Sen. John N. Kennedy falls into that camp.

“Up in D.C., it is visceral. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone is worried,” said Timmy Teepell, a consultant with the national political firm OnMessage Inc. and the strategist who led the campaigns of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“There's a lot of talk ... I don’t think it’ll have much of an impact on Louisiana voters” by next year, said Roy Fletcher, who shepherded Mike Foster’s gubernatorial campaign. It's a prognosis on which Teepell and other Louisiana strategists agree.

Only one official elected statewide in Louisiana is a Democrat. Only one of the state’s eight-member delegation to Washington is a Democrat. More than a million Louisiana voters backed Donald Trump for president. Then there's the practicalities of a campaign trying to sell voters on a narrative in 2018 that faults a Louisiana candidate for not condemning strongly enough an Alabamian in 2017.

Beyond those reasons, one of the most important explanations for why Louisiana is safe in 2018 is that conservative Christians are a growing influence in this state and across the South. Moore has long been a champion for evangelical conservatives. He was twice kicked off the Alabama bench for putting the Bible ahead of state law. So associating with Moore carries little stigma for these voters.

Polls indicate his support remains strong among evangelicals who distrust journalists and politicians. And where once morality was fairly rigid, it now appears more tied to results.

In just five years, white evangelicals flip-flopped on whether immorality in private life should exclude a person from a public leadership role, according to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Seventy percent in 2011 said personal failings interfered with governing ethically. By 2016, 72 percent said leaders with immoral episodes could govern ethically.

Louisiana’s conservative evangelicals are a relatively small percentage of the state’s 2.9 million registered voters. But they actually vote, where most do not, which gives them far more sway in selecting government leaders and influencing policy.

Certainly state politicians know the math.

Eighty-three of the 144 state representatives and senators — mostly Republicans, though some Democrats — lined up at a Louisiana Family Forum banquet two months ago to receive awards based on how closely their votes in the Legislature toed the group’s political agenda.

The Rev. Gene Mills, Louisiana Family Forum’s leader, knows Moore and believes his denials of the allegations by eight women. “Only God, Roy and his accusers know the truth,” Mills said, noting that the incidents took place 40 years ago but only came to light after Moore, who was not the choice for establishment Republicans, found a spot in the runoff with Doug Jones, the Democrat.

In the meantime, the religious right is on the verge of a winning streak that would not have been possible without active political involvement, Mills said.

Just this past week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about whether businesses could rely on religious justifications to avoid complying with a state’s nondiscrimination laws.

Jack Phillips argued that being required to make a cake celebrating the marriage of two men went against his religious beliefs. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission countered that those laws ensure people outside the mainstream have the same access to businesses, housing and employment as everyone else.

The high court will decide the case by the end of June.

And then there’s Kyle Duncan, who is well on his way to joining 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Having someone with Duncan’s credentials on a federal appellate court is something of a dream for many in the conservative Christian community. The Baton Rouge native played a key role in the successful 2014 Hobby Lobby case before the high court. A five-justice majority struck down a federal mandate that private employers, regardless of their religiously based views on abortion, provide employees health care insurance that covered contraception including “morning after” birth control pills.

“We’ve had some major victories and I think Louisiana voters are going to want to protect those wins," Mills said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.