WASHINGTON—Voters at a conservative Christian political conference said a candidate’s politics is the most important factor in which candidate they vote for.
The Pray Vote Stand Summit, hosted by the Family Research Council, made a return to the nation’s capital from Sept. 15 to Sept. 17.
During the event, several top Republican candidates vied for the attention of the conservative Christian crowd, a key base in the Republican Party. Former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former President Donald Trump headlined the event.
Mr. Pence’s Christian messaging fell flat with voters at the event, who seemed more interested in President Trump and Mr. DeSantis, while a few expressed interest in Mr. Ramaswamy’s campaign as a political newcomer.
Above all, voters said, the candidates’ political agendas are the most important aspect of deciding which to vote for.
Pence Falls Flat With Attendees
Mr. Pence has made his Christian faith a cornerstone of his presidential campaign, describing himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”
Mr. Pence made an exhortation to prayer during his speech to attendees, recalling his own rediscovery of his faith after a period of moving away from religion as a young man and exhorting the crowd to “remember to pray.”
But his message seems to have fallen flat with most voters at the event, who indicated to The Epoch Times that they’re considering other candidates more strongly. Several indicated that Mr. Pence’s decision on Jan. 6, 2021, to certify President Joe Biden’s electoral college victory is a key component of their attitudes toward Mr. Pence.
During his speech, as has become almost commonplace when he speaks, Mr. Pence faced some heckling from the crowd.
“You betrayed us!” one attendee shouted.
“We want Trump!” another said—reflective of a theme at the event, where President Trump was the clear favorite of attendees.
When asked what he thought of Mr. Pence, Roger Woodard, a Church of God preacher from King’s Mountain, North Carolina, said, “Not much.”
Mr. Woodard said that even before Mr. Pence’s decision on Jan. 6, 2021, he had found the candidate uninspiring.
“I thought he was a little vice president,” Mr. Woodard said. “I thought that he betrayed Trump. I think he was just another one of those unfortunate appointees—Trump made some mistakes and one of the biggest ones was the people he put around him.”
Fraser Browning of New Hampshire said, “I don’t know if I could vote for Pence at this point.”
Mr. Browning noted that he felt that Mr. Pence should have done more in response to concerns of fraud in the 2020 election.
Mr. Woodard also said he felt that Mr. Pence was running out of “a personal ambition to stop Trump.”
Although the crowd of the event was an older group, young voters at the event agreed with these concerns about Mr. Pence.
David Fritz, a student at The Catholic University, said, “[Faith is] definitely an important aspect of what conservatives should be running on—faith, family, freedom—but I think a Pence is … appealing to an older generation who thinks that everything’s all fine and dandy in America.”
“I personally think he’s only running to preserve his legacy.”
Matthew Blomgren, also a student at The Catholic University, agreed.
“Pence is not a viable candidate,” he said, citing discontent with Mr. Pence’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021.
Gavin Lewis, another Catholic University student, said, “Mike Pence is boring.”
Greg Abdouch, who flew to the event from California, said Mr. Pence’s Christian messaging wasn’t the most important consideration in picking a candidate and that he was ultimately going to support President Trump.
“I pride myself on being a Christian,” Mr. Abdouch said. “But I also know that my Christian walk has to do with Christ himself. Whether Mike Pence is a Christian or whether Mike Pence isn’t is up to Mike Pence and God; whether Donald Trump is or isn’t [a Christian] is up to God and Donald Trump.
“I’m not voting for Jesus Christ to run this country. If he was on the ballot, he’d have 100 of my support. He’s not. I’m voting for the man that I think can pull this country back to its godly Christian values. And what he does with his salvation, whoever that man is, is up to him.”
Likewise, Mr. Woodard indicated that he had some doubts about President Trump’s Christian bona fides but indicated that he was supporting President Trump because the former president couldn’t be bought by special interests because of his personal wealth.
Trump and DeSantis Most Popular With Voters
Most voters indicated support for either President Trump or Mr. DeSantis, the front-runner and runner-up, respectively, in most polls.
And both candidates tailored their messaging for the crowd.
President Trump pointed to his achievements on the issue of abortion, as it was his appointees to the Supreme Court who overturned Roe v. Wade, and criticized the belief that abortion should be offered at “five, six, seven, eight, nine months.”
Mr. DeSantis extolled faith, calling it “something that is endowed to you by the hand of mighty God.”
Ron Ulman of St. Augustine, Florida, who has attended the event every year for more than a decade, said he considered social and cultural issues such as transgenderism, abortion, and immigration as among the most important considerations in picking a candidate this cycle.
Mr. Ulman said that although he likes Mr. DeSantis, President Trump is “by far” the better pick for addressing these concerns.
When asked who she would support, Bonnie Erpelding of Minnesota said “definitely Trump,” citing as her most important considerations the restoration of the traditional family, securing the border, and reforming the education system in the United States.
“We need a warrior,” said Ms. Erpelding, an endangered species biologist. “We need a warrior who trusts in God, who believes that it is our Creator to whom we owe our doing. I believe Trump believes that.”
However, voters also expressed concerns with some of President Trump’s rhetoric.
“I was very much a Trump person,” Mr. Browning said. “[But] his mouth is just more than I can stand.”
Mr. Ulman agreed, despite his support for President Trump’s reelection bid.
“I agree like [Mr. Browning] said, some of the stuff he says, I dread it,” Mr. Ulman said. “But we’re in a battle. … Just with the record of what he did accomplish with all the opposition that he faced—I mean, we wouldn’t be here, where we are today.
“But definitely, he needs to soften.”
Mr. Browning said, “I just feel like he had his chance. I’m sorry about the way the election thing went. But I think we’re too far down that road.”
He said he nevertheless “probably would” vote for President Trump again.
Others expressed interest in Mr. DeSantis.
“My heart is saying DeSantis,” Genelle Lonnes of Minnesota said. “I love Trump. I love his warrior. And I know it’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be really hard, and I haven’t made a final decision. But I will say right now, listening to DeSantis, I don’t think he has the strength and the ‘bulldog’ like Trump does.”
Mr. Ulman said, “I wish DeSantis would say more.”
Mr. Blomgren said, “He has a proven track record of being as a governor in a state that’s relatively middle of the road, and he shifted it very far to the conservative right. DeSantis is a young person himself—a young, faithful person. He’s able to capture that energy in a bipartisan way.”
Concerns About Ramaswamy’s Hindu Faith
Voters at the event also expressed interest in Mr. Ramaswamy but acknowledged that they might find it difficult to support him because of his Hindu faith.
Mr. Browning told The Epoch Times that he had Hindu friends, some of whom he made during his time as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, but admitted that “it would be hard” for him to get on board with supporting Mr. Ramaswamy.
“I have a little problem with a Hindu running this Christian country,” Mr. Woodard agreed.
Others said they were concerned about Mr. Ramaswamy’s lack of experience.
Ms. Erpelding extolled his business acumen, saying what he had achieved was impressive.
But she said: “Would I vote for him for president? Not yet. I think he needs more experience.”
Still, despite these concerns, Mr. Ramaswamy seemed to garner the third most interest among the candidates.
Bishop Vincent Matthews, a speaker at the event, told The Epoch Times that he would consider Mr. Ramaswamy as his third pick, behind Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis.
Mr. Blomgren, Mr. Fritz, and Mr. Lewis, who are roommates, said they were ultimately undecided, indicating that they had Trump, DeSantis, and Ramaswamy flags hanging in their apartment.
Ryusuke Abe contributed to this report.