Politico

'Never Trump' Republicans team with progressives to convert the president's religious base


A left-leaning group focused on persuading religious Americans to vote out Donald Trump in November has recruited some of the president’s leading Republican agitators to assist them.

On Wednesday, Vote Common Good will launch a new partnership with the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump GOP group founded by veteran Republican strategists, to mobilize faith voters to reject Trump on Election Day.

The initiative will focus on courting white evangelicals and white Catholics — two demographics Trump won by significant margins in 2016 — who have lost patience with the president’s behavior or been disappointed with his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protest movement against racism. The efforts will be concentrated in six battleground states — North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida — where multiple polls have shown Trump trailing his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“If there was ever a time when Republicans, especially people of faith can be moved, it’s probably now,” said Sarah Lenti, executive director at the Lincoln Project, which was co-founded by George Conway, the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. “This is about doing the right thing for our country and that goes back to embracing Biblical principles, such as loving and caring for each other.”

Getting white evangelicals to peel away from Trump — much less to vote for Biden — is no easy feat. The political alliance between white evangelicals and Republican politicians dates back decades and has rarely shown signs of weakness during the president’s first term. Before this spring, the only time Trump’s most prominent conservative Christian supporters had publicly split with the president was over his push to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

But recently, segments of Trump’s Catholic and Protestant supporters have been distancing themselves from his response to the Covid-19 crisis. The Lincoln Project and VCG hope to capitalize on that waning confidence, which has extended to Trump’s ability to handle the worsening economic crisis, public health catastrophe and civil unrest.

They’re also hoping to pitch Biden as an attractive religious alternative to Trump. Biden, a Catholic, has portrayed himself as the unity candidate in an intensely fractured political landscape and rarely shies away from discussing his personal faith.

“For some people this will be a two-step process,” said Doug Pagitt, a progressive evangelical pastor who founded VCG. “The first part is letting go of the reflexive impulse they have to vote Republican, which is a hard thing to let go of. And then for some of those people, stepping all the way over to Biden is a big step.”

Pagitt launched VCG after the 2016 election to reach religious conservatives and other traditional faith voters, hoping to break the Republican strong-hold on the community. Now, Pagitt said, VCG and the Lincoln Project “want to make an offer” to lifelong Republican voters that encourages them to support Biden based on arguments that draw on their values and Christian identity.

“I respect the fact that many people feel they’ve been conservatives or Republicans their whole lives and to push them to vote for Biden, that’s like pushing them to abandon their identity. We don’t want to do that,” he said. “But for them to hear from the Lincoln Project, which is a bunch of Republicans saying they are going to vote for Joe Biden because of their faith, that can be powerful and convincing.”

Part of VCG’s plan is to forge personal connections with religious conservatives in crucial 2020 swing states. Soon they will launch a postcard campaign sending handwritten notes to religious voters asking them to lean deep into their faith for guidance this November. Though the postcards, which Pagitt described to POLITICO, will vary in style — one will include VCG’s sogan, “Faith, not fear. Hope, not hate. Love, not lies,” the other will feature the “love is patient, love is kind” passage from 1 Corinthians 13 — each will contain a personal note from another voter.

“It’s not a slick mailer, it’s a handwritten card saying, ‘Hey, I’m Doug from Minneapolis. I hope your faith is meaningful to you,’” Pagitt said.

The mailers are just one part of the duo’s targeted campaign. On Wednesday, the groups will host a virtual town hall with Pagitt, Lincoln Project co-founder and GOP strategist Rick Wilson, evangelical minister Rob Schenck, whose support for Biden marks the first time he’s supported a Democratic presidential contender since 1976, Society of Christian Ethics president David Gushee and journalist Amy Sullivan. They are also planning an onslaught of digital, radio and television ads aimed at “gettable” Republican voters, according to Lenti.

“If someone is a single-issue voter on abortion and they still think Republicans are better than Democrats on the issue, that’s probably not someone we’re going to get,” Pagitt said.

Ultimately, the two groups hope to move 4 to 5 percent of disaffected Republican voters in the six states they’re planning to target before Election Day. Since 2018, VCG has focused its efforts on identifying 50,000 persuadable voters in key swing states and working to convince them to vote against Trump.

According to Lenti, the Lincoln Project is also eyeing Texas and Iowa as two emerging battlegrounds that it could include in its efforts. Trump, who carried both states in 2016, has recently slipped in statewide polling against Biden, who began advertising in Texas in mid-July.

Recent polls on religious voters’ attitudes toward Trump show minor slippage in his support among white evangelicals, 81 percent of whom voted for him in 2016, and steady erosion to his appeal among white Catholics.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in June showed 72 percent of white evangelicals approved of Trump’s job as president, down five percentage points since January. Meanwhile, 75 percent said Biden would make a “poor” or “terrible” commander in chief. The same survey, however, found that 82 percent of white evangelicals plan to vote for Trump, meaning 10 percent of those who said they disapprove of Trump’s job performance still intend to cast their ballots for his reelection.

The Lincoln Project and VCG hope to change that in the three months remaining between now and Nov. 3, in addition to courting other key constituencies, such as veterans and seniors, whom polling suggests could be wary of handing Trump a second term.

“We basically want to flood the zone with information,” Lenti said. “Evangelicals and people of faith are just people, and so a lot of our ads are going to touch all people, not one particular constituency.”

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