CLEARWATER — Vice President Mike Pence spent Wednesday afternoon in Tampa Bay cementing a passionate evangelical base that will be critical to Donald Trump’s re-election efforts.
During a midday speech, Pence reminded a crowd at a Seminole Baptist church that Trump is, has been, and will be an anti-abortion president. His opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, would not, he claimed.
“Make no mistake, Joe Biden would appoint activist judges to our courts who would legislate from the bench and trample on our most cherished freedoms,” Pence told a crowd of about 100 at the Baptist Church in Starkey Road.
Later, Pence addressed a crowd of about 200 people in the ballroom at the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa.
“The American comeback has begun,” Pence announced after defending the administration’s response to the pandemic. Pence also expressed confidence in Gov. Ron DeSantis, who like Trump has seen his poll numbers plummet as the COVID-19 crisis worsened.
At the heart of Pence’s remarks was support for pro-life politics, including calls to end late-term abortion and support religious freedom. He proclaimed Trump to be the most pro-life president in the nation’s history, citing Trump’s March for Life speech in January this year. Trump was the first sitting president to address the march in person.
Pence’s visit was part of a “Life Wins” multi-state tour with anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List. Pence also visited 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 is part of a broader effort by Trump’s campaign to lure conservative voters into the home stretch of a pandemic-limited presidential campaign. There are less than 90 days until the November 3 election.
The “Faith in America” tour kicked off in Wisconsin in June. Earlier this summer, Pence was supposed to bring the tour to Sarasota, but the July 2 event was canceled as the number of coronavirus cases rose in the Sunshine State at an alarming rate.
Abortion remains the go-to issue for Trump’s outreach to conservative voters, even though Trump and Biden have changed their minds on abortion over the years. In 1999, before he was a politician, Trump said he was “very pro-choice”.
Until Biden’s bid for the nation’s highest office this election cycle, the Democrat was a supporter of the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion services. except in cases of rape, incest or attempt on the life of the mother. Biden has now said he would like to see this canceled policy.
Since 2017, the Trump administration has won over the Christian right with its actions, staffing the federal court system with conservative judges. These jurists are more likely to be skeptical of the idea that abortion rights are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution — the precedent set in the Supreme Court’s decision Roe v. Wade from 1973.
But not all religious groups have welcomed Pence. Prior to his visit, Florida religious leaders held a conference call to criticize Trump’s policies.
“As a pastor who has served the LGBTQ community, it’s sickening…to hear how our faith is being hijacked by the current administration,” said Reverend 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’s not to promote equality, it’s not to promote inclusion, it’s a political position to try to getting votes and not paying attention to what’s going on in our campaign.”
The backdrop of the trip made religion inescapable, especially at the location of Pence’s first speech: a church. Under the IRS code for tax-exempt organizations, churches are typically listed under 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 legally allowed to participate in a such speech.
Seminole, where Pence gave his first speech, is 87% white, according to a 2019 US Census estimate. The vice president’s visit underscored how heavily the Trump 2020 campaign will rely on the white evangelical vote in key swing states.
According to the Pew Research Center, white Protestant evangelical Christians, who are on the whole staunchly anti-abortion, hold far more favorable views of the president than evangelicals of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.
81% of white evangelical voters say Trump stands up for what they believe in, according to the March Pew study.
Future Florida House Speaker Chris Sprows and state Senator Kelli Stargel, both Republicans, also gave short speeches at Starkey Road Baptist Church. U.S. Representative 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 have drawn a standing ovation.
“America is a freedom-loving nation and it’s a nation of faith,” Pence said.
He also praised Trump for his calls for “law and order” in response to racial justice protests across the country.
The Biden campaign blasted Pence’s visit in a statement, calling it a “photo op.” The campaign statement did not mention abortion, instead emphasizing the coronavirus outbreak in the state.
“The state continues to see some of the highest numbers of cases in the country right now and much of that is due to the failures of Donald Trump,” Biden’s campaign statement read.
But like those who showed up for Trump’s visit last week at the Pelican Golf Club in Belleaire, the supporters did not seem to question or doubt the leadership of the administration.
The streets leading to the Hilton were lined with supporters waving “Trump 2020” flags.
And, like last week’s event, fans didn’t seem to care about the lack of COVID-19 safety precautions. While masks were required to enter the Hilton, as the event progressed inside the ballroom, some attendees removed the masks to speak to each other.