NOEL KING, HOST:
Some Democrats who are running for election in 2020 intend to pay special attention to people of faith. The faith-based message is not one that candidate Hillary Clinton embraced in 2016. And that may have cost her votes among evangelicals and Catholics. Many of them are swing voters. So what's it going to take to bring them into the Democratic fold? Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For decades now, Republicans have had a solid hold on those conservative Christians who make up the religious right. Lately, Democrats have been courting those people of faith who support progressive causes - the religious left. Now there's another group up for grabs - the religious middle, faith voters with a mix of views. It includes people like child advocate Kelly Rosati. At an Evangelicals for Life conference earlier this year, she chided fellow Christians for not going beyond their anti-abortion rhetoric to consider adopting children who need homes.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KELLY ROSATI: And so as pro-life people - more importantly, as followers of Christ, if we aren't the families that these kids can be welcomed into, then where are the families?
GJELTEN: Reached by phone at her home in Colorado, Rosati said she identified politically as a Republican until she decided the party lacked compassion. But she's not all that enamored of the Democrats, either, whom she sees as lurching to the left.
ROSATI: I feel incredibly discouraged.
GJELTEN: And without a political affiliation.
ROSATI: You have this extreme embracing of abortion from those in the Democratic Party. And at the same time, I have the exact same feeling when I look at those in the Republican Party who seem to have a similar callousness as it relates to immigrant children or people without access to health care.
GJELTEN: And Kelly Rosati is not alone. Among Christians, there are also Catholics and mainline Protestants in the middle. Michael Wear, himself an evangelical and a Democratic Party consultant, says it's fertile territory for Democrats if they don't blow it.
MICHAEL WEAR: There are large numbers of faith voters who are looking for bolder approaches on voting rights, on pro-family policies like paid family leave and child care. I do think there's a cohort of swing voters who are religious who Democrats risk losing with their move to the left on reproductive rights and abortion.
GJELTEN: That risk can be minimized, Wear says, if candidates go out of their way to at least show respect for people with different views. Having worked on faith issues in the Obama campaigns of 2008 and '12, Wear saw people with conservative views on social issues who were still won over.
WEAR: Voters who knew that Barack Obama was pro-choice, who knew that he supported same sex - marriage but thought that he understood the concerns that those who disagreed with him might have - I think Democrats in 2020 need to have that approach.
GJELTEN: So does Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.
CHRIS COONS: I don't think the average voter looks at a scorecard of where candidates stand on Issue A and Issue B and Issue C as much as they listen and watch and say, do I like him? Do I believe her? Do I connect with them? Would they be a good leader? Would I feel safe with that person running our country?
GJELTEN: Questions, he says, answered by a gut feeling. That's where a candidate's faith comes in.
COONS: To like someone, to engage with someone and to ultimately support them and be comfortable with their leadership means knowing their heart, which I think means knowing their faith.
GJELTEN: As a regular participant in Capitol Hill prayer breakfasts, Coons advises his fellow Democrats to speak more openly about their own faith. At least two current presidential candidates, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg, are looking to hire faith advisers to help in their campaigns. And the Democratic National Committee has a new director of faith outreach, Reverend Derrick Harkins, formerly the pastor of the historically black Nineteeth Street Baptist Church in Washington. His counsel - meet faith voters where they are.
DERRICK HARKINS: Square one is making sure people know they're being heard and not being dismissed.
GJELTEN: So Harkins will soon be meeting with faith leaders around the country from across the political spectrum.
HARKINS: And then the responsibility falls on me and our work here to act on those issues in the ways in which we can.
GJELTEN: Harkins says he's already met with Catholic leaders. In the last presidential election, exit polls showed most Catholic voters chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Harkins also foresees meetings with evangelical leaders. That could be a tougher constituency to crack. White evangelicals are believed to have chosen Trump by a 5-1 margin.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.