CLEARWATER — Vice President Mike Pence spent Wednesday afternoon in Tampa Bay shoring up a passionate evangelical base that will be critical to Donald Trump’s reelection efforts.
During a noon speech, Pence reminded a crowd at a Baptist church in Seminole that Trump is, has been, and will be an anti-abortion president. His opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, would not be, he said.
“Make no mistake about it, Joe Biden would appoint activist judges to our courts who would legislate from the bench and trample on our most cherished liberties,” Pence said before a crowd of about one hundred at the Starkey Road Baptist Church.
Later, Pence addressed a ballroom crowd of about 200 at the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa.
“The American comeback has begun,” announced Pence after defending the administration’s pandemic response. Pence also expressed confidence in Gov. Ron DeSantis, who, like Trump, has seen his poll numbers dip as the COVID-19 crisis has worsened.
Central to Pence’s remarks was support for pro-life policy including calls to end late term abortion and support freedom of religion. He proclaimed Trump to be the most pro-life president in the nation’s history citing Trump’s March for Life address in January of this year. Trump was the first sitting president to address the march in person.
Pence’s visit was a part of a multi-state “Life Wins” tour with the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List. Pence also toured A Woman’s Place medical clinic in Pinellas Park, which offers medical advice to pregnant women while discouraging them from choosing abortion.
Wednesday’s visit folds into a broader effort by Trump’s campaign to appeal to conservative voters in the home stretch of a presidential campaign limited by the pandemic. There are fewer than 90 days until the Nov. 3 election.
The “Faith in America” tour kicked off in Wisconsin back in June. Earlier this summer, Pence was slated to bring the tour to Sarasota, but the July 2nd event was canceled as the number of coronavirus cases increased in the Sunshine state at an alarming rate
Abortion remains the go-to issue for the Trump campaign’s outreach to conservative voters, even though both Trump and Biden have changed their views on abortion over the years. In 1999, before he was a politician, Trump said he was “very pro-choice.”
Until Biden’s run for the nation’s highest office this election cycle, the Democrat was a supporter of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortion services except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother. Biden now said he’d like to see that policy overturned.
Since 2017, Trump’s administration has won over the Christian right through its actions, stocking the federal judiciary with conservative judges. Those jurists are more likely to be skeptical of the idea that abortion rights are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution — the precedent established in the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.
But not all religious groups welcomed Pence. Ahead of his visit, Florida faith leaders held a conference call to criticize Trump’s policies.
“As a pastor that has served the LGBTQ community, it is sickening ... to hear how our faith is hijacked by the current administration,” said Rev. Gina Durbin of King of Peace in St. Petersburg. “As we hear about the Vice President coming to do a faith in America tour, it is not to promote equality, it is not to promote inclusion, it is a political stance to try to get votes and not pay attention to what’s happening in our country.”
The trip’s backdrop made religion unavoidable, especially at the location of Pence’s first speech: a church. Under IRS code for tax exempt organizations, churches are generally listed as 501c(3), a classification that prohibits them from participating in political campaigns. However, Susan B. Anthony’s List spokeswoman Mallory Quigley said Pence spoke at an event hosted by her organization, which is a 501c(4) ― a classification that is legally allowed to participate in such speech.
Seminole, where Pence made his first speech, is 87 percent white, according to a 2019 U.S. Census estimate. The vice president’s visit underscored the extent to which the 2020 Trump campaign will lean on the white evangelical vote in key swing states.
According to the Pew Research Center, white protestant evangelical Christians, who are by and large fervently anti-abortion, harbor much more favorable views of the president than evangelicals of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.
A full 81 percent of white evangelical voters say Trump is fighting for what they believe in, according to the March Pew study.
Future Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls and state Sen. Kelli Stargel, both Republicans, also made brief addresses at Starkey Road Baptist Church. U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who served with Pence in Congress, joined Pence at the Hilton in Clearwater Beach.
Pence paused throughout his speech there as supporters echoed his message chanting “Four more years!” Occasionally, Pence’s remarks drew a standing ovation.
“America is a freedom loving nation and this is a nation of faith,” said Pence.
He also praised Trump for his calls for “law and order” in response to the racial justice protests across the country.
The Biden campaign blasted Pence’s visit in a statement, calling it a “photo-op.” The campaign statement didn’t mention abortion, emphasizing instead the coronavirus outbreak in the state.
“The state continues to see some of the highest number of cases in the nation right now and that is in large part due to Donald Trump’s failures,” the Biden campaign statement read.
But like those who showed up for Trump’s visit last week to the Pelican Golf Club in Belleaire, supporters didn’t seem to question or doubt the administration’s leadership.
The streets leading to the Hilton were lined with supporters waving “Trump 2020” flags.
And, like last week’s event, supporters didn’t seem to mind the lack of COVID-19 safety precautions. While masks were required for entry into the Hilton, as the event progressed inside the ballroom some attendees removed masks to speak to each other.