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Trump seeks another valuable religious group to carry him to a 2020 victory

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President Donald Trump. | Tony Dejak/AP Photo

Three years ago, Catholic voters helped carry Donald Trump into the White House. Then they hardly heard from him.

Until Trump carried 52 percent of their votes in 2016, American Catholics supported the Democratic nominee in all but four presidential cycles since 1952. But after betting it all on the thrice-married Manhattan businessman — Trump won white Catholics by a 23-point margin, compared to Mitt Romney’s 19-point victory in 2012 — they never received so much as a “thank you” from the 45th president.

Rather than enjoying the same VIP treatment white evangelicals have received since the earliest days of his administration, conservative Catholics’ connection to Trump has rarely extended beyond his own staff. The president is surrounded by self-identified Catholics — including Attorney General Bill Barr, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — but rarely does he engage with outside Catholics in the same way he does with evangelical leaders. Some evangelical figures have dined with the president in his private residence, while others were spotted mingling with Cabinet officials at a midterm watch party he hosted in November 2018. Yet it wasn’t until last month that public liaison officials inside the White House held their first briefing exclusively for Catholic stakeholders.

The Trump campaign says that’s all about to change: If the 2020 election will be won or lost in the Rust Belt — specifically in economically depressed counties throughout Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that boast a sizable share of cultural and devout Catholics — the president can’t afford to have Catholics feeling left out.

“Catholics were of secondary importance to the Trump campaign in 2016, behind evangelicals. That hasn’t changed, but there is at least an effort to reach this community now,” said former GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, now a senior political adviser for CatholicVote.org who attended the White House briefing for Catholics in December.

Inside the Trump campaign, preparations are underway for a “Catholics for Trump” coalition and a series of events that will get the president and his surrogates in front of friendly Catholic audiences. According to three people familiar with the planning, Trump is expected to deliver remarks in late March at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast — an event he has not yet attended, despite the involvement of other administration officials and his participation in the non-denominational National Prayer Breakfast each year as president.

Later this month, Trump is also expected to address participants of the March for Life, the largest annual gathering of abortion opponents. The event in Washington typically draws a sizable number of Catholic parishioners from across the U.S., and occurs in conjunction with a youth rally hosted by the Archdiocese of Washington on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 court decision,Roe v. Wade.

Those involved with the Trump campaign’s efforts to grow the president’s religious base beyond white evangelical Protestant voters said much of the heavy lifting will be done by local Catholic lay groups such as the Knights of Columbus. The international fraternal organization has previously offered financial assistance to asylum seekers impacted by Trump’s immigration policy — which is widely unpopular among both white and Hispanic Catholics, according to multiple polls taken during Trump’s presidency — but is otherwise closely aligned with the administration’s religious freedom and anti-abortion policies.

“We plan to work a lot with the Knights and all sorts of groups around town and around the country in a real push to find voters who are Catholic and are engaged and want to get involved in our field program,” said a senior Trump campaign official, adding that the U.S. Catholic population “is too big a group to not engage with.”

Two White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the president’s policy record should be an easy sell to older Catholic voters in swing states — particularly those who attend Mass once a week or lean conservative. Trump’s own attorney general once described such voters in an interview about his time in the George H.W. Bush administration as “a proxy for Reagan Democrats.”

“A little bit more ethnic, a little bit more blue collar, a little bit more middle America, less upper-crust country-club types,” Barr said, asserting that the mainstream Catholic vote “is the swing vote, frankly.”

Other Trump allies said the president’s economic policies — his protectionist trade posture, tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks — are reflective of Church doctrines on the principle of the common good and care for the least among us.

“When you look at Catholic social teaching, it is very much aligned with the way this president prioritizes strength on the national stage and fairness in economic relations with other nations, such as with China and NATO,” said Fr. Frank Pavone, a controversial Catholic priest who served on Trump’s pro-life advisory board in 2016.

There are some officials, however, who said the president’s best shot at making inroads with Catholic voters is to talk up his record on abortion, judicial appointments, criminal justice and immigration.

“Catholic voters, like all other voters, have opinions on issues of immigration and trade, and the more people we have engaging in conversations about the president’s record, the better,” said the senior Trump campaign official.

Recent polling suggests the president could encounter roadblocks in his outreach to Catholic voters if he sticks to his standard stump speech for religious audiences, which is loaded with references to religious freedom, job growth, the judiciary, foreign policy and his ongoing trade negotiations with China. Only one of those subjects (economy and jobs) was ranked among the top 10 issues that Catholics are most concerned about in a December 2019 survey of registered voters by EWTN and RealClearPolitics.

Climate change, race relations, K-12 education and income inequality were all identified by Catholic respondents as higher priorities than religious freedom or Supreme Court appointments — two issues Trump campaign officials and White House allies consistently mentioned when POLITICO asked how the president plans to appeal to Catholic voters.

Furthermore, Trump runs a risk of alienating certain Catholic communities the more he talks about immigration — an issue that is central to his 2020 campaign and particularly fraught within the Catholic church. A fall survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, found that only 39 percent of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. favor restrictions on immigration, which the current administration has sought to curb drastically. At the same time, 68 percent of white Catholics said they favor such policies.

The obstacles Trump faces with non-white Catholics are part of the reason his campaign’s outreach will be heavily concentrated in the Rust Belt — a region that is both disproportionately Catholic and populated by non-college-educated white voters. Campaign officials claim the steep decline in Catholic support that Hillary Clinton saw across the Northeast and upper Midwest in 2016 is evidence of a cultural shift fueled by resistance to the Democratic party’s progressive agenda. In each of Ohio’s top 15 Catholic counties, for example, support for Clinton either shrunk or remained nearly the same as the support President Barack Obama earned in 2012, according to a POLITICO analysis of exit poll data.

“The nature of the Catholic sensibility — based in both faith and reason — is such that [it] does not lend itself to being ideological and rather lends itself to being persuadable,” Steven Krueger, president of the group Catholic Democrats, told The National Catholic Reporter last March.

In the second half of Trump’s first term, some white Catholics who originally approved of Trump’s performance have indeed been persuaded to question their support. When Trump took office in January 2017, 48 percent of white Catholics viewed him unfavorably. That figure rose to 52 percent in 2019, according to the PRRI survey, which also found a 9-point drop in the president’s approval rating among white Catholics.

Pavone attributed part of the decline to the lack of substantial outreach to Catholic communities since Trump took office, especially compared to the president’s outreach to white evangelical circles. Trump has delivered the commencement address at Liberty University, an evangelical institution; made unscheduled visits to evangelical churches; spoken at evangelical conferences; and maintained an influential evangelical advisory board, from which he promoted televangelist Paula White to a senior White House position last fall. And earlier this month, he gathered with 5,000 evangelical Christians at a bilingual megachurch in Miami for the high-profile roll-out of his campaign’s “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition.

But he also said Catholics who do support the president have been less vocal about their attraction to his campaign than evangelicals — a trend he blamed for making Catholic voters who might be on the fence about Trump feel less comfortable about giving him a closer look or volunteering for his campaign.

“Evangelicals have been very, very forward and unapologetic about their support for the president and part of our role is to encourage our folks to do exactly the same,” he said.

As for Catholic clergy — most of whom are discouraged from making public endorsements of political candidates — Pavone said they, too, should speak up if they support the president. “The neutrality that may have had some application in the past may not apply nowadays.”

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