How should Republicans court the conservative Christian vote in 2016? Among the presidential candidates, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz are offering competing models for maintaining and growing a critical part of the GOP’s coalition in the primaries and in the general election. Both strategies show promise and peril.
The former Florida governor is taking a page out of his brother George W. Bush’s political playbook, calling for what amounts to a compassionate conservatism for the post-Obama era. “I do believe, I honestly believe that as a conservative that believes in limited government, we need to put the most vulnerable in our society first, in the front of the line,” Bush said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington in mid-June.
His rhetoric among the faith-focused crowd emphasizes shared Christian values and duty toward fellow man, even if it’s not always clear how this translates into policy on health care or taxes. “We could shut down government if we all acted on our sense of consciousness about helping others,” he said.
Not that Bush doesn’t talk or care about the social issues that have energized white evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics to pull the GOP lever. He’s pro-life, like the rest of the Republican field, and says marriage should be only between a man and a woman. He connects these issues to actions he took as governor, like passing tougher regulations on Florida’s abortion clinics and intervening to keep alive the vegetative Terri Schiavo after a court ordered her feeding tube pulled. But always, Bush’s pitch is couched in terms of Christian compassion, with an eye to appealing not just to traditional Republican voters but Hispanic and black Christians as well as moderate whites.
“We took special care for the most vulnerable in our society,” he says of his eight years in office.
If Bush is a lover, Cruz is a fighter. “I will never, ever, ever shy from standing up and defending the religious liberty of every American,” said the Texas senator at the same conference. He predicted 2016 will be “the religious liberty election.” Close Cruz-watchers won’t be surprised to hear him use combative rhetoric in addressing these issues. At the conference, Cruz mentioned the “forces of darkness and threats that face” conservative people of faith.
“The battles today have only intensified,” he said. “In fact, just this week I think the EPA has named religious liberty an endangered species.”
Cruz wants to show evangelical voters not only that he’s fought on the right side of important religious liberty battles but also that he’s one of them. He sounded part litigator, part preacher as he described his religious freedom legal work to the Faith and Freedom Coalition. One case brought Cruz toe-to-toe with the ACLU, which sought to remove a white cross from a World War I veterans’ memorial on federal land in the Mojave Desert. Several federal courts had ruled the cross be taken down, and the question lay before the Supreme Court.
“They said you could not gaze upon the image of a cross on federal lands,” Cruz said. “Well, I’ll tell you this. They were right on one thing. The cross has power.”
And the people of the cross, Cruz insists, have untapped political power. “There are, right now, about 90 million evangelical Christians in America. Fifty million evangelicals are staying home.” It was an echo of his announcement speech at Liberty University, where Cruz said “roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting.” There, the senator asked the evangelical crowd to “imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.”
It looks like Cruz’s “turn out the base” strategy could succeed in the GOP primary but be devastating in the general, whereas Bush’s broad-based approach hurts his chances for the nomination while helping the party overall in November 2016. But it isn’t that simple, says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He says they’re chasing different types of Republican primary voters.