Ralph Reed celebrated the seventh anniversary of his Faith & Freedom Coalition in the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington on Friday, stalling for Donald Trump. The presumptive Republican nominee for president was 10 minutes late, then 30 minutes, then 45 minutes. Reed, who just wrapped up a full decade of beingusually young-looking, praised Trump’s support from “men and women of faith” and his list of possible pro-life Supreme Court nominees. He was down to the time-filling dregs — an unrelated story about a Cuban exile — when Trump finally arrived, took the stage, and gave an error-free speech.
When it was over, Reed headed to a secluded conference room for a victory lap. Trump, he said, was the first presidential candidate to show up and give a speech to any of his political organizations since George H.W. Bush spoke to the Christian Coalition. (Bush had just dispatched its founder, Pat Robertson, in the primaries.) Reed even knew Paul Manafort, the Washington fixer who had stabilized Trump’s campaign as it won the final primaries. It was Manafort, Reed recalled, who broke the news to Bob Dole that people like Reed had stopped a “tolerance” plank, softening the party’s pro-life stance, in the 1996 platform.
Having gotten to know the candidate, Reed was confident that he believed what he said — and that Christians would vote for him. The stubborn bloc of a few million non-voting evangelicals, the people both Reed and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) dreamed of activating, could finally be activated.
“It does not become larger or smaller based on who the nominee is,” said Reed.
A week that began with Republicans carping about Trump, and some even suggesting the party find a way to dump him before the convention, ended with a warm embrace. Trump, as he pointed out at the conference, won evangelical voters in nearly every state. Reed, who did not support Trump in the primaries, had come to appreciate his appeal. A candidate who proved so many smart people wrong could not be dismissed because of mid-summer poll numbers or gaffes.
“You cannot underestimate the importance of luck in all of life’s endeavors,” said Reed.
Over the first two days of Reed’s conference, Republican politicians either chose not to mention Trump, or suggested that he’d be a partner in a winning agenda. On Thursday, before a few dozen religious right activists gathered in the Capitol to lobby their congressmen, they heard from a succession of them about the work the Republican majority had been doing. The tone was almost plaintive, as members of the 2010 tea party class like Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) discussed bills and hearings that the media had not covered.
“We need a willing partner in the White House to act on this,” said Black, without mentioning Trump’s name.
On Friday morning, there was no criticism of Trump from the stage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who earlier in the week had told Bloomberg Politics that the candidate was uninformed (“I have argued to him publicly and privately that he ought to use a script more often”), spent his time boasting about bills the Republican majority had passed and bills it could pass once Barack Obama left the White House.
“It shows what’s possible if we elect a new president next year,” said McConnell, talking up the little noticed Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, and crediting it with stopping the spread of common core. (The bill prevented the Department of Education from linking funds to states’ implementation of common core standards.)
The reaction in the audience was mixed. After Trump delivered a measured speech read from a teleprompter, Jocelyn Tchakounte was pleasantly surprised.
“His speech was a little more tempered,” said Tchakounte, who immigrated to Virginia from Africa. “He said that he would take care of all Americans. He was a little more inclusive than he was before. He said that he would draft programs to lift everyone and that was a positive message.”
Lisa Ortiz,, who had come to the conference from Middleton, Del., wasn’t convinced that Trump was sincere.
“I am confused,” she said. “I am a conservative and I just don’t feel like he needs us. Conservatism, that is what the Republican Party stands for but I just don’t know. Even though he isn’t a politician he really is one. He says one thing at 12, then at 3, he changes his mind.”
But Trump was not heckled, as he’d been at the Omni Shoreham for a similar conference in 2015. According to Reed, nothing that Trump had said or done could really prevent the expansion of the Republican vote that he’d planned for years.
The Latino vote was one example. In 2015, Reed and the coalition favored immigration reform, and outreach to Latino voters. Trump had rocketed to the front of the Republican field, then won, by promising to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Early polls gave him the lowest favorable numbers with Latino voters of any Republican candidate in decades.