It’s been a tough presidential cycle for Mike Huckabee. After a promising 2008 campaign that messed up Mitt Romney in Iowa and charmed the media before it ran out of money, Huck sat out 2012 and entered the 2016 race as one of the very early favorites. He kept on top of all the culture-war issues that enraged his conservative Evangelical constituency (he was, for example, a sponsor of a successful nationwide effort to patronize Chick-fil-A when the sandwich purveyor’s founder disrespected LGBT folk). He published a new book with the evocative title God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. Sensing the unhappiness of white working-class voters with Republican economic policies, he doubled down on the populism he was credited with in 2008 by coming out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Social Security and Medicare cuts being marketed as entitlement reform. And he returned to his own haunts in the churches and megachurches of Iowa.
But it just hasn’t worked out for Huck this time around. Donald Trump completely stole his thunder on the populist front, burnishing it with a rage against immigrants that a Baptist preacher couldn’t quite match. He constantly lost market share among the conservative Evangelicals of Iowa, at first to Scott Walker, later to Ben Carson, and still later to Ted Cruz, with his 2012 doppelgänger, Rick Santorum, in there battling him as well.
And finally, when the deal started to go down in the First-in-the-Nation Caucus state, his old friends and colleagues in the Christian Right political organizations abandoned him, mostly for Cruz. He recently vented about it to Fox News’s Todd Starnes in terms usually reserved for Judas Iscariot:
As I’ve often said, “I don’t go to them, I come from them,” but because of that, I do understand them. And a lot of them, quite frankly, I think they’re scared to death that if a guy like me got elected, I would actually do what I said I would do, and that is, I would focus on the personhood of every individual, we would abolish abortion based on the Fifth and 14th Amendment, we would ignore the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision. And you know what the result would be?
A lot of these organizations wouldn’t have the ability to do urgent fund-raising because if we slay the dragon, what dragon do they continue to fight? And so, for many of them, it could be a real detriment to their organization’s abilities to gin up their supporters and raise the contributions, and I know that sounds cynical, but Todd, it is what it is.
Now, even if you don’t quite buy the idea that Christian Right leaders are alarmed by the prospect of a president who would “abolish abortion” and defy the Supreme Court, there is some reason to wonder if they have their old mojo in Iowa and elsewhere, and thus if Cruz is going to get the same boost from them this year that Huck got in 2008.
At Religion Dispatches, the intrepid religion-and-politics reporter Sarah Posner thinks Cruz’s phalanx of holy validators is suspect. Some, like James Dobson and Ted Land, have probably always been overrated as political players and are more than a little long in the tooth. Another big name, pseudo-historian David Barton (who is coordinating Cruz’s super-pacs), has been discredited in many Evangelical circles for his dubious scholarship about the Founders. Some surveys of conservative Evangelical elites show Cruz running behind Marco Rubio. Some next-generation Evangelical leaders — such as Land’s successor as chairman of the Southern Baptist (Cruz’s denomination) Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — have taken issue with the whole Christian Right strategy of a political “marriage” to the GOP. And then are the nonreligious, cultural factors that enable Trump to exert a devilish appeal to a lot of conservative Evangelicals.
Personally, I get the sense the old-school Christian Right may exercise more power in Iowa than elsewhere, at least among the activists (including clergy: The Reverend Rafael Cruz has led an effort to identify a clerical coordinator for his son in every Iowa county) who will actually help organize voters for the Caucuses. But if that’s not the case, and the faithful stray into division and disarray, one politician who may be quietly pleased, even if he’s not the primary beneficiary, is Mike Huckabee. He’s not only losing a presidential election; he’s losing his following, along with the sunny disposition that made him a breath of fresh air even to cynically secular reporters in 2008.