The strategic power of Maine’s religious right

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to the audience during a campaign rally at the University of Maine in Orono. Gabor Degre | BDN

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz speaks to the audience during a campaign rally at the University of Maine in Orono. Gabor Degre | BDN

According to Pew Research, Maine is among the least religious states in the country. Only 34% of Mainers say religion is very important in their lives and just 22% attend weekly church services. More than half of Mainers say they don’t believe in God with absolute certainty.

That doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t still play an important role in our politics, and some recent election results show the power that the organized evangelical Christian vote can have, especially within Maine’s Republican Party.

Many state and national political observers were surprised when Texas Senator Ted Cruz won the Maine caucuses over GOP front-runner Donald Trump, especially as Trump had just been endorsed by Tea Party-favorite Governor Paul LePage.

Someone who was a bit less surprised was Christian Civic League executive director Carroll Conley.

“On the evening of our state caucus, I received a phone call from well-known national news source. The reporter said she had heard about the record turnout and how evangelicals had shown up big-time, especially for Cruz. She then asked if the League was responsible for the record turnout to which I replied: ‘I certainly hope we played a part in getting the church out,’” explained Conley on his weekly radio broadcast a few days later. “She then asked my take on how Cruz soundly defeated Trump. I told her I believed there were two layers to that answer: first, Cruz greatly benefited from momentum from his rally in Orono the day before, and I believe Cruz also benefited from evangelicals who were tired of being blamed for the ‘Trump phenomenon,’ so a vote for Cruz told the world ‘We do not identify with Mr. Trump.’”

Cruz has been courting evangelical voters hard, including holding national prayer meetings. In Maine, his campaign’s communications with supporters have had strong religious overtones.

“[Caucusing] is the single most important thing you can do other than praying to help Ted Cruz win the Presidential Nomination,” read one email sent a few days before the GOP caucuses.

These religious appeals haven’t often been determinative elsewhere in the country, and, despite his two divorces and a personal brand associated with vice and excess, Trump has won solid majorities of evangelical voters in most other states. According to an analysis from The Cook Political Report, this is in large part due to non-religious factors, as Trump has tapped into racial resentment and animus within these groups with his bigoted and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Interestingly, however, according to a new analysis from the Washington Post, Trump does least well (and Cruz does much better) among those evangelical voters who attend church the most regularly. This is exactly the group that targeted appeals and organizing seem to have turned out for the Maine Republican caucuses. With just 18,650 Republicans attending, a strong evangelical ground game went a long way.

Organized, conservative religious voters may have had a similar effect two years ago in the Second District Republican Congressional Primary between former State Treasurer (and now Congressman) Bruce Poliquin and former Maine Senate President Kevin Raye. Poliquin, who had recently moved to the district and recently moved to a more staunchly anti-abortion-rights position, enlisted the help of the religious right in his campaign against the pro-choice Raye.

“In an unprecedented and unapologetic way, Bruce reached out to the evangelical leadership,” said Conley after Poliquin won the Primary.

The League claimed their “Pews to the Polls” campaign alone boosted turnout in the election by 15%, a larger number than Poliquin’s margin of victory.

In short, what conservative religious voters lack in numbers in Maine, they have made up for in part with strategic organizing.

Republican Primaries and caucuses are the kinds of low-turnout, conservative contests where organized evangelical voters can have the greatest effect, but while they have less power in broadly-representative general election, their potential electoral influence shouldn’t be discounted. A strong, organized turnout operation among conservative denominations could continue to make a difference in close elections up and down the ticket, even in this likely high-turnout Presidential year.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.