A group of Republican presidential hopefuls recently gathered in Iowa, each hoping to woo and win Religious Right activists ahead of the 2016 election.
At an event hosted by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition in April, nine potential and declared candidates, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), tried to win the support of far-right social conservatives.
The Dallas Morning News reported that more than 1,000 people attended the event, which was held in a church and lasted more than five hours. The newspaper described the candidates’ speeches as “fiery testimonial,” with Cruz and Huckabee drawing standing ovations before their remarks even got under way.
Huckabee claimed some in the United States wish to “criminalize Christianity,” insisting that “the single greatest threat to all of our freedoms is the threat to your religious freedom.”
Cruz walked a similar path when he accused liberals of demonizing Christianity, particularly in public spaces.
“The greatest trick the left has ever played is to convince conservatives that America doesn’t share our values,” he said.
Some evangelicals who attended the event expressed concern that there are too many options – even with the 2016 presidential election more than one year away.
“I’ve heard it from a lot of people in the grassroots that we don’t want to split our votes and let the establishment guy take it,” said Steve Deace, an Iowa radio host and conservative leader. (Deace was referring to the 2008 GOP presidential nomination of U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and the 2012 selection of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, both of whom won only grudging support from the Religious Right.)
The GOP 2016 field is expected to be crowded, and several candidates are making a play for the Religious Right vote. Huckabee and Cruz have wide appeal in that community, as does Ben Carson, a former surgeon known for his opposition to LGBT rights. Paul and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) are also courting the Religious Right. Two other politicians with high appeal to these voters, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, are also believed to be contemplating making a run for the White House.
Analysts, such as Politico’s James Hohmann, said Religious Right voters may have trouble throwing all of their support behind any single candidate during the primaries.
Hohmann opined that a “splintered religious right could allow a relative moderate like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie…to win the caucuses with a plurality, a fear expressed quietly by leaders of the movement.”
Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Christie, current governor of New Jersey, both skipped the Iowa event.