An influential conservative evangelical group is ramping up its spending on efforts to defend Republican majorities in the November midterms.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition, which invested heavily during the 2016 elections, plans to spend nearly $20 million on a voter turnout effort to protect GOP majorities in the fall.
“We are going to make a bigger effort in 2018 than we did in 2016," said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
“We think our people are going to come, but we also think their people are going to come and they are going to come in really big numbers. This is going to be hard fought.”
Reed estimated that the group will make 180 million voter contacts through digital outreach, knocking on people's doors and making phone calls, sending texts, emails and physical mail.
The current budget for the mobilization effort sits at $18 million, but that’s subject to change as the battlefield expands and contracts in the coming months, Reed told a small group of reporters during a wide-ranging interview at the coalition's annual “Road to Majority” summit in Washington, D.C., on Friday.
Evangelical leaders have long viewed President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — State Dept. employees targets of spyware Ohio Republican Party meeting ends abruptly over anti-DeWine protesters Jan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth MORE and the GOP-led Congress as major allies in their fight to reshape the federal judiciary and pass legislation aimed at protecting religious freedom.
Trump's supporters see him as having come through on a number of conservative priorities, including installing Justice Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and working to repeal certain restrictions on the political activities of religious groups.
“These are the most conservative, pro-family policy victories in a shorter period of time that I’ve seen in my career. More than we had under Bush 43, more than we had with Newt [Gingrich] as Speaker,” Reed said.
Evangelical voters came out in droves for Trump in the 2016 election, with exit polls showing that 80 percent of evangelicals had cast their ballots for the Republican businessman. The voting bloc made up 26 percent of the electorate, the same as in the 2014 midterms.
Trump enjoyed strong backing from evangelicals despite concerns about depressed turnout surrounding the October 2016 release of the "Access Hollywood" tape, which showed Trump speaking in lewd terms about grabbing women without their consent.
This year, nonpartisan analysts see the House as up for grabs due to a combination of historic trends — the party controlling the White House typically loses seats during midterm elections — as well as Trump's low favorability, which has driven up enthusiasm among Democrats. In the Senate, meanwhile, while Republicans currently have just a one-seat majority, Democrats are defending 10 seats in states won by Trump in 2016.
And although Republicans are taking stock of positive economic indicators ahead of the November elections, Reed cautioned that evangelicals are going to have to turn out in droves to defend GOP congressional majorities against excited Democrats.
“They are really fired up, they are coming and they are coming in really big numbers,” Reed said of Democratic voters.
“It is sort of the mirror image of the Tea Party of 2009 and 2010. They are fired up, they are angry, they are chewing on nails and they are coming. All we can do is our job, we can’t control what they do.”
Right now, he sees states like Indiana, Missouri, Florida and North Dakota as battlegrounds where the conservative group's investments could make the most difference, based on demographic considerations and a robust ground game.
Reed said he believes that one big driver for evangelicals will be the specter of impeachment for Trump, comparing the potential blowback to what happened in the 1998 midterms when Republicans fell flat after backlash over the impeachment of former President Clinton.
But while many evangelicals are more than satisfied with the policy victories that Trump and congressional Republicans are racking up, others are raising concerns that Trump has tainted the party and the moral compass of those who stand by him.
Peter Wehner, a veteran of multiple Republican presidential administrations, penned a New York Times op-ed late last year in which he said that the decision by evangelicals to support Trump and then-Alabama Senate nominee Roy MooreRoy Stewart MoorePress: For Trump endorsement: The more sordid, the better Roy Moore loses lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race MORE (R) — who had been accused of pursuing teenagers when he was in his early 30s — caused him to “rethink my identification with both” the GOP and the evangelical movement.
“I consider Mr. Trump’s Republican Party to be a threat to conservatism, and I have concluded that the term evangelical — despite its rich history of proclaiming the 'good news' of Christ to a broken world — has been so distorted that it is now undermining the Christian witness,” Wehner wrote.
Acknowledging the divide in the movement over Trump, Reed said he doesn’t believe that the constant stories over Trump’s alleged affair with adult-film star Stormy Daniels will dampen turnout among evangelicals in November.
“That does not mean issues of character are not important, they are important … I think the voters rendered that verdict in 2016 and rendered it in a very devastating fashion,” he said.
Reed also argued that evangelical voters will be able to take a step back from the noise and turn out in November based on the successes over the past year.
Recounting a conversation he had with an unnamed White House official last year, Reed compared conservatives complaining about Trump to Green Bay Packers fans complaining about their former quarterback, Brett Favre.
Favre’s penchant for taking chances often ended in devastating interceptions, but his electrifying passing led the Packers to a Super Bowl victory and won Favre a place in the Hall of Fame.
“Every now and again he’s going to throw a pick. Every now and again he’s going to tweet something that maybe, on second thought, he shouldn’t have tweeted,” Reed said.
“But on the other hand, if he wasn’t who he was, he wouldn’t have packed those arenas, fired up people the way he did. People love him.”