Kissimmee, Fla. — Top Republicans gathering here this week at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual conference called for the party’s base to mobilize ahead of the 2022 elections, and to fight every day against the Biden administration’s radical left-wing agenda.
They railed against critical-race theory. They touted their pro-life and gun-rights bona fides. They vowed to continue standing with Israel. And they warned about new forms of Marxism worming their way into American institutions.
The “Road to Majority” conference, attended by more than 2,000 conservative and pro-family advocates, provides an opportunity for GOP leaders to begin energizing the party’s grassroots activists in the lead-up to next year’s all-important midterm elections. It’s also an opportunity for Republican strategists to begin planning ways to reach new voters, and for elected officials to road test new messages and talking points.
“This is a critical audience and a critical forum,” Ralph Reed, the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s founder and president, told National Review.
The conference comes as the GOP finds itself out of power in Washington D.C. and undergoing something of an identity crisis. After the January insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, prominent critics on both the left and right charged the party with having devolved into a Donald Trump personality cult in the grip of conspiracy theories. The party, they alleged, was overly focused on fighting culture war battles and engaging in grievance politics.
Republicans didn’t bother produce a new platform ahead of the 2020 election, and the party didn’t conduct an official “autopsy” after Trump’s loss last year. Only one Republican in the last 30 years has won the popular vote in a presidential election, George W. Bush in 2004.
The conference also comes as organized religion’s influence continues to decline rapidly in the U.S. For the first time last year, fewer than half of Americans, or 47 percent, said they are a member of a church or synagogue, according to a recent Gallup poll. The percentage of Americans who said that religion is “not very important” in their lives increased to 27 percent last year, up from 12 percent in 2000, according to Gallup.
But Republicans are still in a good position to retake one or both house of Congress next year. Republicans only need to flip about a half dozen seats to win the House. In the wake of the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, large numbers of Republicans fled the party. But in the last few months, the party switching has leveled off, and Republicans have outpaced Democrats in fundraising.
“I think the Republican party right now stands very united, and very much on our founding principles,” Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn told National Review. “I think if Ronald Reagan was here today, he would say, ‘Let’s get back to basics. Let’s focus on lowering taxes, lessoning regulations, creating an environment where people can live out their version of the American Dream.’”
Republican activists need to focus on voter outreach, Blackburn said. Americans are increasingly skeptical of the mainstream media, she said, so personal connections and spreading the conservative message to friends and family are increasingly important.
“The way you change the country is one heart, one mind at a time,” she said.
Texas senator Ted Cruz told the conference crowd that a great conservative revival is coming. In an interview with National Review, he said the “corporate media” writes the Republican party’s obituary every couple of years, and they’ve been hoping for the party’s collapse “ever since the very first GOP victory in 1860 with Abraham Lincoln.”
“I think we are poised to have a tremendous victory in 2022, and I think we’re poised to have an even bigger victory in 2024,” Cruz said. “Right now, Biden, Pelosi and Schumer have made the decision to hand the party over to the radical left. The people driving the policy agenda are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez].”
There was some Trumpian flavor to the conference, though it wasn’t overwhelming. A handful of people attended wearing oversized red hats or leather vests that read “Make America Great Again.” One woman interrupted Mike Pence’s speech on Friday, yelling as she walked out that he was a “traitor,” presumably for not trying in January to overturn Trump’s election loss.
There was discussion at the conference about how to broaden the Republican party’s appeal, and how to diversify the conservative coalition by appealing to minorities and younger voters. Republicans have been talking for years about growing the party by appealing to minority voters. Trump made some gains with black and Hispanic voters last year, but overall the GOP has been slow to adapt to demographic changes.
“Don’t’ give up on the African-American vote. Don’t give up on the Latino vote. Don’t give up on the Asian vote,” implored Tony Lowden, the Georgia pastor at former president Jimmy Carter’s church, who was picked by Trump to lead his administration’s prisoner re-entry efforts.
Civil-rights attorney and Fox News commentator Leo Terrell said last year’s Republican National Convention was “beautiful,” because the party talked about inclusion. “We’ve got to do that 365 days a year,” he said. Terrell urged Republicans to focus on empowering small business and making sure people of color understand that school choice is to their advantage.
Reed vowed to “keep going until this (conservative) movement embraces the full diversity of our country.” He noted that there were 500 Hispanic 200 black faith leaders and community organizers at the conference, and he pledged to double those numbers in the coming years.
“Many of the values and the policies and the issues that we advocate as conservatives and Republicans are held by tens of millions of minority Americans,” Reed said. “But we have neglected and failed to build an infrastructure and to invest financially in growing our support among those voters. And we’ve paid a heavy price for it.”
Rather than being nervous about it, Reed said white conservatives are “extraordinarily enthusiastic” about diversifying the movement. “It has hurt their feelings so much to be denounced as racists because they’re conservative,” he said.
South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham said the goal for Republicans should be to recruit candidates that “look more like America.” Trump lost the White House in 2020 by about 44,000 votes, he told the conference. Republicans need to look for new voters around the country.
“You know where those votes lie? In the pews of every church in America,” Graham said. “You know where those votes lie? In Hispanic communities looking for a better world. You know where those votes lie? African Americans who are tired of being taken advantage of and taken for granted by the Democratic party.”
Reed said he’s not overly concerned about the country becoming more secular. Historically, periods of low church attendance often are followed by explosions in religiosity. In the meantime, he said, social conservatives can’t just focus on issues that are of particular interest to people of faith, like religious freedom and abortion. And their advocacy can’t be simply based on invoking Biblical authority, Reed said.
“We also have to be talking about school choice and criminal justice reform and expanding the child tax credit and economic opportunity and education reform and human trafficking,” Reed said. “If you have a broad-based agenda, then you’re not talking to only religious folks about abortion.”
During his speech on Friday, Cruz charged that too many of America’s pastors are hiding behind the pulpit and turning a blind eye to what’s happening in the country. Any faith leader who values the nation’s freedoms needs to speak out without fear.
“Too many pastors are saying, ‘If I actually preach the gospel, there are going to be some people unhappy in the crowd. They’re going to get up and leave,’” Cruz said. “Let me tell you right now, if we are going to defeat the woke assault, then all of us need to wake up.”
The Faith & Freedom Coalition Road to Majority conference continues on Saturday. Florida governor Ron DeSantis is the conference’s keynote speaker.