A group of pastors endorsed Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell over Democrat Ted Strickland, a former Methodist minister and U.S. representative who has increased his early lead to 25 points.
A Rasmussen poll conducted Aug. 22 found that 57 percent of likely voters backed Strickland, compared to 32 percent for Blackwell. Last month, Rasmussen polled the race at 51 percent to 37 percent.
Strickland is not in the clear, however, and the religious endorsement could help build Blackwell support among Ohio’s conservatives, an electorate credited with re-electing President Bush to office in 2004.
On Monday, an organization of conservative ministers named Clergy for Blackwell endorsed Blackwell’s bid for governor praising his strong stance against abortion and same-sex marriages. The group includes over 30 ministers who came together as individuals to support Blackwell, making it clear that they are not representing the opinions of their churches.
The endorsement brought loud criticism from parts of Ohio’s religious community including a more liberal group of ministers and rabbis called We Believe that formed in late 2005 to counter the political influence of the religious right. Clergy for Blackwell’s endorsement, according to We Believe’s head Tim Ahrens, is a mistake and crosses the line between church and state.
“I’ve found from my reading of scripture when you step with one person in power, you lose your ability to raise prophetic questions,” said Ahrens in an interview with Ohio Public Radio. “In our times, I think we need to be asking questions about homelessness and poverty.”
Ahrens said We Believe disapproves of religious leaders supporting any candidate for office and will not be endorsing Strickland in November.
Blackwell, who already enjoys strong support from Ohio’s religious right, appeared with Clergy for Blackwell in a Cincinnati news conference and said the mix of religion and politics is not unconstitutional.
“Ours is not a call today for the establishment of a theocracy. But we are fundamental believers. The public square should not be stripped of religion or faith,” said Blackwell.
“I will fight for the right of the nonbeliever to not believe. Because we all have the right to be wrong.”
Clergy for Blackwell includes the Rev. Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church, who along with another reverend has been accused by some religious leaders of using his church and affiliated tax-exempt organizations to promote Blackwell.
Johnson said that Clergy for Blackwell will not raise or spend money and that the event was sponsored by the Family First Political Action Committee.
Heading into the fall campaign behind in the polls, Blackwell has taken early chances to attack Strickland’s voting record in the U.S. House and often calls Strickland “congressman and former prison psychologist.” In his first ad of the fall, a 30-second spot on TV and posted on YouTube.com said to “watch out for Taxin’ Ted Strickland.”
In response, the Strickland campaign posted an ad claiming he voted for tax cuts for the middle class and married couples.
The two candidates will have the chance to battle face-to-face during a series of four debates beginning Sept. 5 in Youngstown.