Supreme Court Justice Ted Cruz? Is Trump afraid he's bleeding religious right support?

The Jerry Falwell Jr. sex scandal may have happened at just the right time.

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This week Donald Trump announced a list of 20 Supreme Court nominees he’s put forth if re-elected. It was a who’s who of hatemongers who’ve railed against abortion and LGBTQ rights.

The list includes GOP senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Tom Cotton (Arkansas) and Josh Hawley (Missouri), all of whom have called for the end of Roe v. Wade and have publicly attacked and voted against equality for LGBTQ rights. Former solicitor general under George W. Bush, Paul Clement, who defended the Defense of Marriage Act at the Supreme Court, as well as former Trump solicitor general Noel Francisco, who argued on behalf of the government to allow businesses to discriminate against queer customers in the infamous Masterpiece Cakeshop case, are on the list too.

The list conveniently came on the day Trump was trying to change the subject from the revelations of the Bob Woodward book and his lies and deception to the American people on coronavirus. But it also came on a day that saw more polling showing that Trump’s support among evangelicals and Catholics has softened — which followed on polls from earlier in the spring. That was a reason I concluded that. unlike the 2016 Republican National Convention, there was no mention of “LGBTQ” anything from Trump — or anyone — at the 2020 convention.

Of course, Trump is not in danger of losing a majority of these voters or even a large minority. White evangelicals, in particular, have been a bedrock of his support — he garnered more of them in 2016 than George W. Bush and Mitt Romney did in previous presidential elections — and their leaders continue to fervently support him.

But Trump, who was backed by 80% of white evangelicals in 2016, needs every one of those who voted for him — and then some — very badly if he’s to win re-election. Pew Research notes that the group has actually shrunk two percentage points as a share of the electorate from 2016, to 15% of voters from 17%. So, just a few percentage points could cost him if a few switch allegiance or just stay home, disgusted by politics.

And this week a poll released by Vote Common Good, conducted by pollsters at the University of Southern California, Duke University, University of Maryland College Park and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, found a swing of 11% among white evangelicals and Catholics who voted for Trump, now supporting Joe Biden across the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Biden is a practicing Catholic who comfortably speaks of his faith. It’s not a surprise that he would cut into some of Trump’s support among Catholics, who are very diverse and don’t vote as a block in the way evangelicals do. A Fox News poll from just a few weeks ago, however, found Biden grabbing 28% of evangelicals, which may not sound like a lot but is up more than double the 12% for Hillary Clinton, according to the 2016 election exit polls.

Earlier polls in spring showed concerning slippage for Trump among religious right voters in several polls and surveys, some of it due to coronavirus and Trump’s abysmal response, as white evangelicals skew older, and older Americans overall have grave concerns about coronavirus. Trump seemed to rebound with these voters, but then his photo-op at a church outside the White House with a Bible after tear-gassing peaceful protestors, as well as other actions, appeared to backfire.

As Politico reported earlier this week looking at the new polling:

…[S]o far, President Donald Trump’s overtures to religious voters appear to be falling flat.

Months after worries first exploded inside the Trump campaign over his eroding support among white evangelicals and Roman Catholics, some of the president’s top religious allies are now in a panic — concerned that Joe Biden’s attentiveness to Christian voters, whom Democrats largely ignored in 2016, is having an impact where the president can least afford it.

Doug Paggit, executive director of Vote for Good and a Minnesota pastor, told Politico: “People of faith who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton saw her as more corrupt and less kind than Donald Trump, and now some of those same voters see Donald Trump as more corrupt and less kind than Biden.”

That may be true for some, but on the issues they care most about, white evangelicals and conservative Catholics voted for Trump in a transactional manner: He promised, boldly, to end abortion rights and strip LGBTQ rights — even as he tried to play both sides in the campaign in 2016 — and then moved to do so as president in more dangerous ways than any previous president.

And yet, Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Neal Gorsuch, held up as a gift to the religious right, delivered the most stunning win for LGBTQ people since the Obergefell marriage equality decision, writing the majority decision in a landmark case this year that ruled LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I wrote about how that didn’t, by any stretch, mean Gorsuch is a friend to LGBTQ people, and he will likely do more harm than good down the road.

But perception is everything, especially during an election year. Many religious right voters were demoralized by that ruling, believing that words and promises regarding the Supreme Court continue to mean little when coming political candidates, viewing the ruling as a complete betrayal.

And that brings us to Jerry Falwell Jr. and the sex scandal that brought him down. Here was the number one evangelical leader behind Trump — the first to back him during the 2016 primaries — now exposed not only as a liar and hypocrite regarding his sexual behavior, but as someone who made millions of dollars for himself and his family off of the Christian university his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., founded, Liberty University. Many of these voters fondly remember his father, a stanch moralist and enemy of gay rights, who stuck to his beliefs and, sleazy as he was, never got caught in anything as sordid and corrupt as his son has been.

Trump’s naming a list of vile bigots as possible Supreme Court justice nominees should he win re-election was meant to re-energize religious right voters. But it probably had the effect of energizing progressives more. The sheer horror of the idea of Supreme Court Justices Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz surely scares the daylights out of many, and galvanizes progressives further.

And it’s not clear this announcement or other actions will be enough to solidify Trump’s religious right base the way it was in 2016. The vast majority will of course go back to him — this is a very reliable constituency for Republicans — but losing any of them could spell doom. Trump won the 2016 election by little over 77,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three states where Catholics are a strong part of the electorate and where white evangelicals have been well-organized.

If just a few vote for Biden — who has teams on his campaign organizing among both Catholics and evangelicals in battleground states — and, worse yet, if just a few others are demoralized and have soured on politics (even if just for the time being) by both the Gorsuch decision and Falwell’s crash, it could cost Trump.

And, with all of the other issues swirling around Trump’s dangers and failures, and the energy among progressives, it may mean we boot him from office, along with the hate, violence and harmful religious bigotry he helped to exacerbate in this country.