Sen. Ted Cruz dazzled the crowd, a flaming Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gave the keynote and Donald Trump was not yet a presidential candidate when the Faith and Freedom Coalition held their annual Road to Majority conference in 2015.
A year ago, Trump addressed an audience that had just locked up the Republican Party’s nomination for president.
The nation’s evangelicals will meet again this weekend in Washington, DC, for the conference, and with the GOP field relatively strong, the two-day gathering marks the first time that the biggest names in the race can be seen in the same period of summer. Audition season has begun. As Trump proved in 2015, a lot can change between the opening prayer on Friday and when voters start making their choices in January.
But entering the weekend, Trump remains firmly in the lead — a fact evident not only in recent polls but in the conference program itself. Trump, making his first personal appearance at a cattle call since announcing his 2024 bid, will serve as the keynote speaker for the event’s closing gala. The rest of the field — from bitter rival Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to more likely candidates like former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson — will vie for attention from the morning crowd. as they take turns at the microphone before the conference breaks for lunch.
Trump’s allies, too, will fill most of the time in between. Last year’s losing Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, conservative commentator Nick Adams and Judge Jeanine Pirro, Florida Rep. Byron Donalds and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is all set to speak. The Trump-heavy lineup highlights challenges for other candidates to emerge from a party still dominated by the former president.
“Donald Trump is probably the strongest front-runner and in the strongest position overall of anyone in my career,” said Ralph Reed, the founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
But Reed added that Trump’s competition has a strong case to make, and there are paths for many of them to win the nomination. Reed chose DeSantis as a well-funded candidate who appeared to pose a serious threat to the former president.
A new CNN poll conducted by SSRS after his indictment and arrest on federal charges shows that Trump remains in the lead – 47% of registered Republican and Republican-leaning voters say that Trump was their first choice for the party’s nomination. That’s down from 53% in May. His support appears to have softened amid his legal troubles, with a larger portion of Republicans now saying they would not support him under any circumstances. DeSantis’ support remained steady at 26% and no other candidate in the growing field topped double figures.
“For candidates who are not as high in the polls, this is an opportunity and an important opportunity for them to make their case,” Reed said. “If you’re not Donald Trump, it’s a short calendar where you have to win everywhere and you have to do it quickly. If someone wins one of the first three states, and especially Iowa or New Hampshire, it’s that race can change overnight. I think that’s part of why they’re all here.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, Hutchinson, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and DeSantis will speak on Friday. Radio show host Larry Elder and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley will address the conference on Saturday.
An audience of religious voters may not be the right place to throw the sharpest of elbows at Trump, but some have signaled their intention to engage with the former president in hopes of eroding his support among those conservative evangelical with influence in mainstream GOP politics .
Before the conference, a senior adviser to Christie’s campaign told CNN, “This is a discussion of character.”
“Should we always expect less from our leaders?” asked the adviser, referring to Trump. “Are we willing to forgive bad behavior going forward?”
DeSantis, meanwhile, is expected to announce the passage of Florida’s six-week abortion ban when he addresses an audience on Friday — a move Trump described as “extremely extreme,” a contrast between two that DeSantis was quick to point out. outside. The conference came a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the future of abortion access in the country is expected to loom large in the conservative gathering.
Republican voters are increasingly getting opportunities to expand the GOP field and evaluate it on an equal footing. Next week, Trump, DeSantis, Haley, Ramaswamy and Hutchinson will address a summit in Philadelphia hosted by Moms For Liberty, a relatively new but increasingly influential group of conservative women who focus on on most K-12 education issues.
The Road to Majority conference comes just two months before the first scheduled Republican presidential debate on August 23 in Milwaukee. Trump on Tuesday repeated his suggestion that he would not participate.
“Why should I let these people shoot me?” he told Fox News.
However, Trump’s appearance on Saturday in DC marked a change in approach from similar Republican gatherings. So far, when Trump has participated, it has been via video message, as he did at Faith and Freedom’s Iowa event earlier this year. Trump also skipped the annual “Roast and Ride” of Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst earlier this month, drawing the rest of the field entering the season.
Reed urged Trump to spend more time talking to voters and less time talking about his legal troubles and past elections.
“He has an amazing story to tell, and it’s why he’s doing so well with voters today,” Reed said. “But I think it’s important for him to talk about what that second-term agenda looks like.”