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Donald Trump's strained bond with evangelicals creates an opening for rivals

Trump called some evangelical leaders disloyal and blamed anti-abortion Republicans for the disappointing midterm election results.
Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 6, 2021.
Former Vice President Mike Pence at the the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 6, 2021.Bridget Bennett / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — There is a deepening crack in Donald Trump's bond with conservative faith voters that potential rivals for the 2024 GOP nomination see as an opportunity.

Trump, however, is already making clear that there will be a price to pay for evangelical leaders who abandon him.

“That’s a sign of disloyalty,” Trump said on “The Water Cooler with David Brody” Tuesday. “Nobody has ever done more for the right to life than Donald Trump.”

Even without the full support from a key voting bloc in the GOP, Trump still might be able to survive a fight and still come out on top.

“There is a massive opening for another GOP hopeful to take a significant share of the faith voters in the primary,” said Elijah Haahr, a conservative radio host and the former speaker of the Missouri House. “The question is, does it matter? That vote was divided in 2016 and they would need to unify behind one primary candidate for it to have a major impact on the race.”

Few in the evangelical community — which could account for about half of the GOP primary vote — doubt the significance of Trump's appointment of the justices who overturned the longstanding federal protection of abortion rights. But his recent actions — including blaming anti-abortion Republicans for midterm losses — have given pause to many conservative religious leaders and their congregants. More important, so has the prospect that he might lose to President Joe Biden again if Republicans don't nominate someone else.

Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said Trump is unassailable on abortion and the best candidate to tackle Biden.

"President Trump’s unmatched record speaks for itself—nominating pro-life federal judges and Supreme Court justices that overturned Roe v. Wade, ending tax-payer funded abortions, reinstated the Mexico City Policy that protects the life of the unborn abroad, and many other actions that championed the life of the unborn," Cheung said. "Contrast that with Joe Biden’s abhorrent record of abortion on demand and using American tax dollars to fund the killing of the most vulnerable, it is clear we need President Trump back in the White House."

A nationally prominent and politically connected leader in the conservative faith community described conflict among evangelicals in different terms: the tension voters feel between their nostalgia for Trump's presidency and their fear that he's no longer their best hope.

"The evangelical community is divided," said the leader, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about Trump. "Look, we appreciated everything Trump did for us. It was more than we expected and it was what he promised. But there’s also a feeling that maybe his time has passed, but we don’t want to say that and give him a gold watch and tell him to have a seat.”

That helps explain why evangelical leaders are giving a hearing to his prospective rivals, most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, who is in the midst of what one adviser called a “megachurch tour” as he promotes his memoir called “So Help Me God.”

Pence, who helped Trump lock down support from religious conservatives when he was tapped for the 2016 Republican ticket, has been welcomed by key figures in Trump's coalition as he weighs whether to run for president. Since he was first elected to Congress more than two decades ago, Pence has built deep ties with the evangelical community.

Pence appeared last weekend with Robert Jeffress, the pastor at Dallas megachurch Fist Baptist and a prominent Trump ally in past elections. He is slated to visit the 22,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio Sunday to appear with Pastor John Hagee, another longtime Trump backer who is the founder of that church and the group Christians United for Israel. And Pence is expected to speak to faith voters in the coming weeks in Houston, Miami, Naples, Fla., and New York City.

The opening exists with evangelicals and a broader set of Republican primary voters, the Pence adviser said.

"For all the blocs of [GOP] voters, losing the 2020 election took the shine off of Donald Trump," the adviser said. "I think his behavior post-office has probably taken the shine off more, you know saying that you can cast aside the Constitution, calling into question the pro-life movement. Those are the types of things that I think lose your credibility with the evangelical community and conservative voters writ large." 

Trump, who idled at the White House while his supporters ransacked the Capitol and threatened to kill Pence during the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, said in December that his defeat "justified the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution." 

He has been openly hostile toward his former vice president since Pence refused to help him overturn the election results.

But Trump has wavered between ignoring DeSantis and attacking him, perhaps unsure which approach is the best way to stop the Florida governor from rising.

When in attack mode, Trump has ripped DeSantis for refusing to say whether he will run in 2024, cast himself — accurately — as the key patron of DeSantis' first bid for governor and called DeSantis "DeSanctimonious."

At a time when conservatives worry that Biden could win a second term, Trump's criticism of fellow Republicans isn't sitting well with many evangelical voters, said Dan Carr, the pastor at Slidell Community Baptist Church in Louisiana.

"His continuing attack I think has slowly but surely just pushed people away," said Carr, who described himself as a "pro-Trump pastor" but acknowledged he has not decided who to back in 2024. "I still think Trump is the leader among evangelicals, but I do think that Ron DeSantis is gaining much ground. The third would be Mike Pence. [He] is absolutely angling for that vote."

DeSantis has maintained a studied silence about his political future, but he has been vocal in his support for causes important to Christian conservatives. Not only has he signed laws banning schools from teaching "critical race theory" and discouraging discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools; he is also pushing to strip autonomy from Disney in retribution for the company weighing in against the latter measure.

Carr praised DeSantis for fighting the "wokeness of Disney" and moving to ban vaccine mandates in his state, both of which he cited as issues of importance to conservative faith voters. DeSantis speaks frequently about his own religious views in public, including when he quoted from Psalms during his inaugural address earlier this month.

"I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side,” he said at a time when Trump had recently taken aim at him.

But it's not just prospective rivals who have been targets of Trump's broadsides since he launched his campaign two months ago. Laying blame for the GOP's disappointing midterm elections at the feet of anti-abortion Republicans, Trump said the issue was "poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on no exceptions, even in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother.” Many conservative evangelicals believe abortion should be banned in all cases.

But some faith leaders say they will support Trump because he delivered on his promises to them as president.

"I'm going to support him clear through the Republican primary," said pastor Franklin Raddish, the South Carolina-based founder and director of Capitol Hill Independent Baptist Ministries. "He's proven and tested and reliable."

Still, Raddish added, "we intend to push him to the right."

In Iowa, the first state on the GOP nomination calendar and a state that Trump lost during his run to the 2016 GOP nomination, the Faith and Freedom Coalition plans to host candidates for a "Road to Victory" forum April 22. That should give hopefuls and faith voters a chance to get a better feel for one another.

"If candidates spend time here and act interested, they'll do well; if they don't, they won't," said Steve Scheffler, the organization's president and a Republican National Committee member. "I wouldn't say Trump is the favorite to win Iowa or lose it. I would say Iowa is wide open."

In other words, he said, "If I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet."