Some Democrats try to bring religious voters back to party
After a lackluster performance among religious voters in 2016, some of the Democratic presidential contenders have vowed to do better in 2020, moving to hire personnel charged with selling the candidates — and their party — to the devout.
The Democratic National Committee has also brought on a new faith outreach director, who has begun a listening tour with religious leaders in the run-up to next year’s elections.
The moves are a recognition of the party’s struggles to attract religiously observant voters, particularly evangelical Christians, in any significant way in recent presidential elections.
“They’re reading the electorate right — that there’s a lot of voters who want to come over and support Democratic candidates,” said Doug Pagitt, executive director of the group Vote Common Good. “Just like you would with any other group of particular style or interest or cares and concerns, you want to make sure that you have somebody on your team that’s helping you think through how you’re going to connect with that constituency.”
Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have sought faith outreach coordinators for their campaigns.
They and others have also not been shy about talking up their faith while on the campaign trail.
Mr. Buttigieg, who is gay, has even picked a fight with Vice President Mike Pence over religion, using his own Episcopal religion to accuse Mr. Pence of pushing anti-gay policies.
Conservative leaders doubt the efforts will amount to much.
President Trump has built up a reservoir of support among evangelicals with his record of judicial appointments and shepherding through pro-life policies, and the Democrats’ agenda and policy stances put them out of bounds for many religious voters.
“What’s the wiggle room now?” asked Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which hosted Mr. Trump at the group’s “Road to Majority” conference Wednesday in Washington.
Mr. Reed said Democrats who want to try to reach religious voters should “at least speak authentically about your own faith and why you believe what you do.”
Former Obama administration official Julian Castro, who is Catholic, took that path in an interview published this week by Religion News Service. He said his progressive values are in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“It’s amazing to me to see progressives and Democrats — over the last four years especially — put in this box of somehow not living up to our moral ideals or ethical ideals,” he said in the interview.
Mr. Buttigieg also did “frankly a very good job” of talking about his own religion, Mr. Reed said. But he made a mistake in attacking the religious right and Mr. Pence.
“I didn’t stand up there today [at the conference] and say if you’re a Catholic or an evangelical and you’re voting Democrat, you need to examine your soul, you need to get right with God, you’re a hypocrite, you’re a fraud,” Mr. Reed said. “But that’s what he said about us. So, not smart.”
Democrats have been through this internal debate before.
In 2004, after presidential nominee John F. Kerry lost his challenge to President George W. Bush, party strategists concluded that they didn’t compete well among social values voters.
That sparked a few years of attempts at outreach. Democrats tried to embrace Christian leaders whose message shunned such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage and instead preached social and economic justice.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2006 weighed in with a speech saying Democrats had largely “taken the bait” of conservative leaders, who he said remind evangelical Christians that Democrats “disrespect their values and dislike their church.”
“Over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people’s lives — in the lives of the American people. And I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy,” he said.
But Mr. Obama broke his own advice in the 2008 election by complaining about voters who “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant.”
The divide has only grown deeper. The Democratic Party’s platform urges an expansion of abortion rights, and numerous high party officials say there is no place for dissent in their party on abortion and homosexuality.
“You can always reach out to a voting group, but it’s almost impossible for it to work if you’re pursuing policies that that group completely rejects,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values and a former Reagan administration official.
Deborah Hommer of Virginia, a tea party member attending the Road to Majority conference, laughed out loud when asked about the Democrats’ outreach to faith-based voters.
“Why do I laugh? Because it’s not sincere,” she said. “These people hate God, they hate religion. They mock it all the time. These people are devious. They’re going to do anything they can to get ‘Center America.’ This is just another political stunt for them. Of course they’re going to do something like that.”
But Mr. Pagitt said Democrats have opportunities. “It does feel like there’s a lot more common purpose right now, certainly than there has been since 2008,” he said.