Conservative leaders are increasingly worried that evangelical voters’ devotion to Donald Trump isn’t translating into excitement for other Republican candidates, an ominous development for a GOP that is scrambling to defend its majorities in a challenging 2018 campaign landscape.
Top Christian conservative activists say that Republican-controlled Congress still hasn’t made good on a number of major policy priorities—and they are now warning of an enthusiasm gap with evangelicals, one of the GOP’s most staunchly pro-Trump constituencies and an influential segment of the Republican base. Worse yet, this comes at a moment when the Democratic base is energized.
“There’s concern that they are not excited, engaged and enthused at the level they were in 2016,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the socially conservative Family Research Council.
Penny Nance, the head of the prominent conservative group Concerned Women for America, agreed: “There’s still time for Congress to get busy and put some points on the board, but it is cause for concern.”
For all of the current focus on the president’s tawdry past—including detailed public accounts of reported encounters with a porn star, which are linked to an FBI raid of Trump’s lawyer’s office—evangelical leaders insist that their base is as supportive of Trump as ever. They point to policy promises he has fulfilled, from appointing conservative Supreme Court and lower court judges to signing a religious liberty executive order, and say their voters already knew about his personal history when they voted for him in record numbers.
The frustration, instead, is one that conservative voters have harbored for the last several election cycles: despite Republican majorities in Congress, conservative changes haven’t been far-reaching enough, in their view, even after passage of an often-touted tax law. Activists were particularly incensed by the failure to repeal Obamacare and the more recent passage of the omnibus spending bill, which clocked in at $1.3 trillion and did not defund Planned Parenthood.
“They were very unhappy with the omnibus, very unhappy, really a slap in their face,” Nance said, describing conversations she has had with activists across the country. “It’s really discouraging to them, when they’ve done all this work—Republicans have the House, Senate, White House, and yet the spending bill increases the deficit and … allowed for continued funding for Planned Parenthood.”
Steve Deace, an Iowa-based conservative media personality who has been a critic both of Trump and of Republican leadership, predicted that many disillusioned conservatives would ultimately still turn out for Republicans on the 2018 ballot, scared to the polls by the specter of a Democratic takeover. But even a small drop-off in enthusiasm, he said, carries major risks.
“Now, most of those people will come back in the end because the alternative, to them, is unbearable, but here’s the thing about that …it’s an incremental erosion,” he said.
“If we go the next seven months and all they’ve done all year is that tax cut, I think that’s a danger zone, especially when you’re talking about razor-thin margins,” Deace said. “You have a huge enthusiasm gap. There’s not a lot of people you need to disappoint that the map suddenly looks a lot different than it used to.”
For Republicans, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The president’s party often suffers in campaign years that fall between presidential elections, and this year, the GOP is facing an ultra-energized liberal base that has activated in response to Trump. There also have been a long list of Republican retirements in battleground districts, making the GOP hold on the House of Representatives all the more tenuous — and making evangelical turnout all the more vital.
“It’s critically important,” said Eric Teetsel, the president of the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas who advised Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign on faith outreach. “They’re the base in a lot of different parts of the country, including some of the really competitive districts. It’s absolutely crucial, and so I think [Republican lawmakers] need to take seriously opportunities to generate enthusiasm among that constituency. If I was them, I’d be afraid those opportunities were missed.”
Of course, activists note, there is still plenty of time for Congress to enact more conservative laws, following the tax reform measure that earned plaudits from across the Republican ideological spectrum.
But perhaps more importantly, there is also still time for conservative leaders to argue that their base needs to show up on Election Day to protect Trump’s agenda — which in many ways, Perkins said, “is our agenda, that the president has embraced.”
“Rather than some who say the president, the stuff that’s been dredged up about him, is somehow going to have a dampening effect on turnout, I actually think the president is the key to a successful midterm election,” Perkins said.
Others say that the challenge isn’t with evangelical enthusiasm — it’s with the other side of the aisle.
Ralph Reed, an influential conservative leader and the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said that in a number of special elections in the Trump era, evangelical turnout in contests like the Virginia governor’s race and a special House contest in Georgia was strong.
“If you look at it overall, they’ve turned out, and I think they’ll be coming in 2018, if only because of the magnitude of what’s on the line and out of a sense of loyalty for how much Trump has delivered on his promises to the faith community,” Reed said.
“So I think the question is going to be something we can’t control, which is, how high is turnout on the other side?” Reed continued. “My sense is that they’re coming in very large numbers.”