June 1, 2016 11:05 AM

Can an ill-tempered, thrice-married billionaire dandy win the hearts of Louisiana evangelicals, much less rank-and-file voters?

If there were any doubts about whether the state’s political establishment would accept an insurgent candidate with only a passing familiarity with conservative ideology, those doubts were quickly put to rest May 4 as the entire Republican Congressional delegation, minus holdout Garret Graves, endorsed Donald Trump and pledged to help get him elected. A press release from longtime GOP state Chairman Roger F. Villere Jr. made the party’s support explicit, if not exactly ardent. Noting that the “stakes are too high to hand over the keys to the White House to another far-left Democrat,” Villere called on Republicans to unite to “support Donald Trump and the common goal of defeating Hillary Clinton.”

Graves

For his part, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy said he was for “anybody but Hillary,” while Sen. David Vitter announced he was “absolutely committed to continuing the fight to make sure we defeat Hillary Clinton this fall because the American people deserve a president who will put the needs of our country first,” according to The Advocate.

Perhaps this ready acceptance of the brash billionaire by these scions of the Republican Party is to be expected, given that everybody likes a winner and Trump has squashed the Republican primary season like a bug. Yet, important questions about endorsing Trump remain: What about the non-negotiable beliefs that year-in and year-out constitute the soul of the Republican Party? These appear to have been downgraded to concerns and now seem to be wilting in the heat of Trump’s march to victory. Will Trump fight for smaller government? Unlikely. Will he protect Second Amendment rights? Remains to be seen. Will he champion moral values? Are you kidding? Will he protect the unborn? Who knows? Will he rein in the growing power of the president? Not a chance.

Villere

But Trump is for building “The Wall” and “Making America Great Again” and, more importantly, has bested every star in the entire Republican firmament on his way to winning this nomination. So perhaps the faint chance that Trump will derail Hillary Clinton’s coronation was about all Republicans could hope for in this strangest of political seasons (long, beautiful fingers?).

Still, questions remain about how well Trump will do with Louisiana rank-and-file voters. After all, this reality TV star and real estate tycoon from Manhattan is not exactly a Louisiana son. Point of fact, Trump exhibits few of the characteristics usually associated with Republican aspirants for political office in Louisiana, where electoral viability usually demands the humble expression of a candidate’s dependence on the Almighty, fervent expression of the belief that life begins at conception, unwavering support for the Second Amendment, and forthright patriotism best worn on one’s sleeve.

Given Trump’s very recent and generally unconvincing efforts to coat himself with a thin veneer of conservative values, how will he do in Louisiana’s general election for president? Two final questions remain: Will he convert the religious conservatives who constitute a large faction of Louisiana voters to his cause? And just as important, will Trump’s outsider appeal lure large numbers of new voters to the polls?

In terms of his appeal to religious conservatives, Trump symbolizes much of what Christians detest about America today: its sexualized entertainment, its profane culture, its casual attitude toward life and its ridicule of belief. However, the support of Trump on certain issues may indicate his rising worthiness to Christians. This, in turn, may smooth the way for endorsements from activist religious organizations like the Louisiana Family Forum and its supporters. Articles of faith on this score include Trump’s declaration that Christianity is “under siege,” his promise to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade, his denial of climate change and evolution and his clumsy attempts — exemplified by “2 Corinthians” and “eat my little cracker” — to make nice with Christians at Liberty University and elsewhere. More convincing in this category would be an admission that he has sought forgiveness from God for mistakes made, but that may be a bit much to expect from the preening billionaire.

A February study conducted by the PEW Research Center bolsters the Trump hope of capturing the votes of the religiously inclined. The Pew study ranked states based on levels of religiosity. Not surprisingly, the most religious states were Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Utah and South Carolina, where between 60 and 69 percent of all citizens were classified as “highly religious.” Surprising to some who had assumed that he would have limited appeal to the devout, Trump carried every one of those states (except Utah) by an average margin of 10 percent. In doing so he bested all the other candidates, including usual runnerup Ted Cruz who made a point of appealing directly to conservative Christians.

Based on these primary results, it seems clear that faith voters will, at the very least, give Trump their vote, particularly if bête noire Hillary Clinton is the alternative.

The final question is whether Trump will bring to the polls new voters eager to cast a ballot against the status quo. The results of the Louisiana primary election just past are intriguing. More than 300,000 voters cast ballots in this year’s Republican Party presidential primary, which constitutes an increase of nearly 40 percent over turnout in 2012. Who were these voters? Were they newly energized by the Trump campaign? Were they those celebrated white workingclass voters with whom Trump has had so much success in other states? Or were they just a reflection of the enormous interest this crazy and chaotic election season has prompted in Louisiana and across the country? Either way, Trump will be a winner in Louisiana and most other Southern states, and the Republican Party will be forced to make necessity a virtue once again in its quest to reclaim the presidency.

Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at pearson.cross@lusfiber.net.

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