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Can Huckabee Overcome His “Catholic Problem” in 2016?

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Mark Stricherz - published on 01/28/15

Presidential hopeful struggled to win over Catholics in the 2008 primaries
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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.

Larry Cirignano, a conservative Catholic activist, expressed doubts about Huckabee’s lack of obvious appeal to the white-ethnic, working-class Catholics that former ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn won in the 1980s and 1990s. “I don’t think the Ray-Flynn voters, the Boston-blue-collar types, go for Huckabee. I don’t see an appeal to the Northeast or California and I don’t think you see a crossover vote. The vote really is for the undecideds. The hard-core partisans are already decided, and I don’t see him having that appeal to [many] Catholics," Cirignano said in a telephon interview.

Cirignano volunteered for the presidential campaign of former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in 2012, although he said he doubts that Santorum will mount a second presidential bid in 2016. Yet even conservative Catholic lay leaders who have not worked or volunteered for the likely crop of GOP presidential aspirants expressed uncertainty about Huckabee’s appeal.

John Feehery, a former spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert and president of Quinn Gillespie Communications, said Huckabee would appeal to some but not all parts of the diverse Catholic vote. "I think his brand of Southern Baptist preaching attracts some more orthodox Catholics, and his message at blue workers probably attracts some others, but by and large, the traditional Reagan Democrat, street-corner conservative Catholic won’t find Huckabee that attractive as a candidate," Feehery wrote in an email.

Tom McClusky, executive director at the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, raised a concern about Huckabee’s resume. “I think it’s difficult for politicians who’ve been out of office a long time to get back into office,” McClusky said. He rejected the notion that Huckabee could follow the path of Richard M. Nixon in 1968, who was elected president nearly eight years after his term as vice president expired in 1961. “It was a different era, and I think the Republican Party has changed too.”

Neither Cirignano nor McClusky said Huckabee was one of their five favorite candidates. (McClusky said he likes Governors Mike Pence of Indiana and Sam Brownback of Kansas).  

Yet Huckabee retained support among at least one Catholic lay leader, who declined to speak on the record to discuss the GOP presidential field candidly.  This veteran socially-conservative activist and leader said Huckabee could find support among Catholics upset with the tide of social liberalism that has washed over America since 2008.

“In an era of Obama, his rhetoric probably goes down easier than eight years ago. The pardons that hurt him eight years ago don’t have the sting they did,” the official said, referring to Huckabee’s pardon of an Arkansas man who killed four police officers outside Tacoma, Washington in 2009.

This social conservative said Huckabee’s cultural arguments would win more appeal than in 2008. “The number-one issue isn’t only the marriage issue, but also religious liberty. He’s a known entity. He shared a stage at the NOM [National Organization for Marriage] event last September. He was one of the few politicians there,” the official said.

Cirignano and McClusky, too, expressed admiration for Huckabee’s outspoken defense of traditional marriage and the unborn. Last week, Huckabee suggeted that social conservatives should form a third party if congressional Republicans withdraw support from pro-life legislation and states don’t need to abide by the Supreme Court if a majority of justices conclude that a constitutional right to gay marriage exists. But conservative Catholics leader want a presidential candidate who can do more than affirm their values. They want a candidate who can become president by winning a general election.

“He’d be good on social issues, but most of the Republican presidential candidates are; and of course, he’d be better than George H.W. or George W. Bush," Cirignano said. "Whether he can cross the threshold of electability is another question."

Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia and is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkStricherz

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