By Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger, Washington Bureau
6:42 PM PDT, September 15, 2011
Reporting from Washington
Silicon Valley, the politically liberal technology hub, is an unlikely incubator of conservative Christian activism.
But a group of its venture capitalists is backing an ambitious project that seeks to affect the 2012 election by registering 5 million new conservative Christians to vote.
The nonprofit organization United in Purpose is using sophisticated data-mining techniques to compile a database of every unregistered born-again and evangelical Christian and conservative Catholic in the country.
Through partnerships with Christian organizers and antiabortion groups, United in Purpose hopes to recruit 100,000 "champions" to identify unregistered Christians and get them to the polls as part of its Champion the Vote project. Profiles drawn from its database, which numbers more than 120 million people, will enable organizers to target potential voters with emails and Web videos tailored to their interests.
Most of its financial supporters remain anonymous, but one of its main backers is technology entrepreneur Ken Eldred, a generous Republican donor. Its board includes Reid Rutherford, a Silicon Valley solar-energy plant developer.
"Our goal is to raise up a body of believers and that they elect a lot of godly leaders," said Bill Dallas, chief executive of United in Purpose.
The Champion the Vote website lists "right to life," religious freedom and traditional marriage as the organization's top issues. The group does not embrace any particular party or candidate, Dallas said, adding, "We're about the agenda of the lamb, Jesus Christ."
But that agenda undoubtedly would benefit Republican candidates if it adds significant power to the conservative Christian political movement, already revitalized by new efforts to engage pastors opposed to President Obama.
Predictions that Christian conservatives will increase their political force haven't always materialized in the past. But veteran organizers say this year holds great promise.
"Obama has awakened the sleeping giant of the social conservative vote," said Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, who leads a new organization focused on grass-roots voter outreach. "Whether every lofty plan to register and educate evangelical and Catholic voters comes to fruition or not, the multiplicity and intensity of the efforts underway suggest Obama and the Democrats will compete on a much more even playing field than they were in 2008."
Democratic organizers also attest to the potential, which has prompted religious advocates on the left to expand their organizing efforts.
"We will roll out plans in battleground states that will give the right a run for their money," said the Rev. Jennifer Butler of the liberal group Faith in Public Life, which this cycle plans to triple the $1 million it spent on voter outreach and education in 2008.
Other left-leaning groups jumping into the fray include PICO National Network, a California-based activist group connected to more than 1,000 congregations in 17 states that has a budget of about $25 million.
But Christian conservatives have long outmatched the political might of the religious left, and many of the movement's major figures are backing United in Purpose.
The group operated largely out of public sight until last month, when Don Wildmon, founder of American Family Assn., sent an email promoting Champion the Vote to people who had registered to attend Texas Gov. Rick Perry's recent prayer rally.
The Rev. Buddy Smith, American Family Assn.'s executive vice president, said that Wildmon was a friend of Eldred's, one of the group's financiers, but that the association was not providing it with monetary support.
Eldred, who founded companies such as Ariba Technologies and Inmac, has donated $1.1 million to Republican candidates since 2005, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, and is now raising money for Perry's presidential bid.
But he said in an interview that Champion the Vote did not have a partisan agenda.
"I have the audacity to believe that we can be an influence on both parties," Eldred said. "I personally believe that someday we're going to stand before God, and he's going to pull out a ballot and say, 'How did you vote in this election?' And there are going to be people who say, 'Why do you care about that, God?' And he's going to say, 'Because I created that country and I put you in charge.'"
He declined to say how much money he was putting into the project, except to note: "It's not cheap, I can tell you that."
Dallas, a former real estate developer who said his Christian beliefs deepened while he was serving time at San Quentin State Prison for embezzlement, declined to identify the other venture capitalists financing the project, but described them as "men of deep faith." He said the group had an annual budget in the millions of dollars.
Over the next 10 years, United in Purpose aims to mobilize 40 million out of the estimated 60 million evangelicals in the United States to vote. To locate them, the organization has assembled a detailed database that pairs voter registration records with consumer information that identifies, among other things, subscribers to faith-based magazines, members of NASCAR fan clubs and people on antiabortion email lists.
In 2008, white evangelical and born-again Christians made up about a quarter of the electorate, or 34.5 million people, and overwhelmingly supported Republican nominee John McCain over Obama.
The organization has already seen some early success, registering 268,000 new voters in Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado in 2010 by working with churches affiliated with the Sacramento-based National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, that group's president.
This year, United in Purpose has additional allies, including Christian organizer David Lane, who is holding a gathering for pastors next month in Orlando, Fla., featuring evangelical leaders. United in Purpose is producing DVDs of the event that it will distribute for house parties in hopes that the session will rally new voters.
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