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Can Huckabee Overcome His “Catholic Problem” in 2016?

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Mark Stricherz - published on 01/28/15 - updated on 06/08/17

Presidential hopeful struggled to win over Catholics in the 2008 primaries

WASHINGTON – From the start of his 2008 presidential campaign, Mike Huckabee struggled to woo Catholic voters.

“Prospects for Huckabee attracting Catholic voters are not good, and they are getting worse,” Deal Hudson, a top adviser to George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, wrote on the eve of the Iowa Republican Party’s caucus.

Hudson’s analysis held up. Although Huckabee carried heavily Catholic and rural Carroll County in west-central Iowa, he fared poorly in more urban, Catholic counties in the eastern and western parts of the state. Huckabee won the Iowa caucus, but the pattern that developed of Huckabee doing well with rural evangelical voters and poorly with more urban, non-evangelicals doomed his campaign.

Huckabee had little history working with Catholic constituents. From 1996 to 2007, he was governor of Arkansas, a state where no more than 2 percent of the population identified as Catholic. Still, since 2008 Huckabee has sought to counteract the perception that a former Baptist preacher has no use for papists. 

Three years ago, Huckabee struck a note of solidarity with Catholic bishops who opposed the Obama administration’s mandate that religious hospitals, schools, and charities pay for contraceptive drugs and devices, including a few considered abortifacients. “In many ways, thanks to President Obama, we’re all Catholics now,” Huckabee said at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of the movement’s leaders and activists.

At the end of this month, Huckabee is scheduled to speak at an annual conference in Florida for Legatus, a Catholic lay organization for business leaders and their spouses. (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles are scheduled to speak too). An email to Chip Saltsman, a senior political strategist to Huckabee, was not returned by press time. 

Huckabee’s speaking engagement comes as he prepares for another presidential run. On “Meet the Press” Sunday, Huckabee, 59, said it is “pretty evident” he will make a bid for the White House in 2016. Earlier, Huckabee announced on his Fox show "Huckabee" that "(a)s much as I have loved doing the show, I cannot bring myself to rule out another presidential run," he said, citing his reason for leaving the network.

Based on his latest book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, Huckabee appears to conclude he can appeal to Catholic voters by appealing to their identity as observant Christians, especially on controversial cultural issues such as mandatory contraception coverage, abortion, and same-sex marriage. “But as much as there is a great divide in this country between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ there is also a chasm between the ‘believes’ and the ‘believe-nots,’” Huckabee wrote.

Yet Huckabee did not ackowledge Catholics’ institutional and historical identies. He criticized New York, Washington, and Los Angeles as "Bubble-ville" cities where few attend church and fight the forces of cultural decay. Apparently, he was unaware that each has a large or influential Catholic population and an elaborate network of schools, universities, charities, and archdioceses.  

Can Huckabee overcome his “Catholic problem”? Lay Catholic Republican leaders gave different answers.

On the one hand, none said they would oppose a Huckabee candidacy in 2016; the semi-endorsement contrasts with the opposition of economic libertarians in the Republican Party, such as Grover Norquist and the Club for Growth, who condemn Huckabee for raising some taxes as Arkansas governor.

On the other hand, none named Huckabee as his top choice for 2016. They shared doubts about his ability to win a general election and long elapse of time (eight years) since he left office.

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