Ralph Reed still isn’t sure how the Faith & Freedom Coalition is going to handle 2024.
Reed, the founder of the conservative Christian organization, played a key role in convincing evangelicals to put aside their skepticism of Trump and back him in the 2016 general election.
He urged them to support Trump’s reelection in 2020. But the prospect of a third Trump run is complicating matters, and Reed isn’t yet committing to endorsing the former president, should he seek the nomination again and face a field of other Republicans in a primary.
The group’s annual national conference this week at the Opryland resort in Nashville is, officially, midterm election-themed. But the gathering was also a soft launch for some of the candidates evangelical voters may consider during the 2024 primaries — with or without Trump running.
For now, Reed sees it as the evangelical group’s role to remain neutral during the primary, like in 2012 and 2016, and offer potential 2024 candidates an opportunity to make connections with the Christian voters who will play an outsized role in deciding the nominee.
“We’ve never really tried to be the churchgoing version of the party bosses in a smoke-filled room trying to figure out who the nominee ought to be,” Reed said. “We figure the best thing to do is to provide a platform for those candidates and assist them, informally, by letting them know the best way they can connect with and make their case to those voters and pastors.
“After that, we let the market decide.”
The event has proven effective as a cattle call for candidates ingratiating themselves with conservative Christians — as has befriending Reed, which Trump first did in 2011, when he cold-called Reed for advice on appealing to evangelical voters. Trump spoke at the conference that year, and Friday’s appearance marked his seventh at the annual event, Reed said.
“Would anybody like for me to run for president?” Trump asked the crowd. Much of the audience jumped to their feet with resounding applause and cheering, making clear that their support for Trump has not diminished.
The former president, though, wasn’t the only one whose speech was enthusiastically received at the gathering.
The stage in Nashville offered potential 2024 candidates like Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley the chance to directly address some of the nation’s most influential evangelical grassroots activists and local leaders. On Saturday night, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to deliver a speech.
Notably absent from the lineup were former Vice President Mike Pence, a veteran of the conference with deep ties to the evangelical Christian movement, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential top contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
Both men were invited to attend. Pence chose instead to attend a roundtable event with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in Cincinnati on Thursday, the same day the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill focused on testimony from Pence’s top aides and his decision to certify electoral votes. Last year, that decision prompted jeering from the Faith & Freedom crowd when Pence took the stage.
On Friday, Trump talked extensively about Pence, attacking him in front of the Republicans who are most sympathetic to him: evangelical Christians.
“Mike Pence had a chance to be great,” Trump said. “He had a chance, quite frankly, to be historic. Mike did not have the courage to act.”
After an awkward pause, the audience responded with light applause.
After Trump’s remarks, Reed in an interview described both Trump and Pence as dear friends of his. Reed said that he was on the phone with Trump’s speech writers “for some time” yesterday, but would not elaborate on the feedback he provided about how Trump should discuss Pence at the conference.
“They took some of it,” Reed said of the advice he offered.
A spokesperson for the Faith & Freedom Coalition said Pence’s schedule didn’t allow him to participate this year, and noted a recent event Pence did with the Coalition in North Carolina to engage Christian voters in the Charlotte area.