Ralph Reed, founder of the right-wing "social welfare" nonprofit the Faith and Freedom Coalition, had big plans for the religious right in the 2020 elections. In June 2019, he told The Washington Times that he and other conservative Christian leaders planned to register one million evangelical voters, knock on three million doors, and put literature in more than 117,000 churches. The effort would be roughly three times larger than in 2016, when President Donald Trump won 81 percent of self-identified evangelical voters.
This time around, Reed said, the Christian Right would pull many more Catholic voters to their side. When "faithful, frequently Mass-attending Roman Catholics" join evangelicals, conservative religious voters could total close to 40 percent of the electorate next year, larger than the Hispanic, Black, and union votes combined, said Reed.
The implication was this: If conservative Christians put their electioneering efforts into hyperdrive, Trump's mostly white political movement could fend off the Democrats, whose coalition includes the majority of voters of color and labor groups.
CatholicVote, a conservative Catholic political group, has stepped into that role of mobilizing Catholics to join evangelicals in support of Trump with an aggressive and high-tech $10 million campaign attacking Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, a Catholic, and advocating for Trump's reelection in swing states.
According to Federal Election Commission filings, the group has reported spending $635,000 on election ads so far, nearly all of it going towards attacking Biden or supporting Trump. CatholicVote announced that it is canvassing "parish-to-parish" and will send a report on Biden to five million voters. It is also recruiting people to call Catholic voters and is particularly focused on Pennsylvania, according to an email it recently sent to its mailing list.
"For Catholics who cherish the Faith and their freedom to live it, a Biden presidency represents
an existential threat," said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote in a press release.
In 2018, the most recent year on record, CatholicVote's expenses totaled $3.1 million. Given its $10 million campaign against Biden, its revenue and expenditures have quickly expanded. As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Fidelis, which operates CatholicVote Civic Action, is not permitted to use more than 49.9 percent of its resources on political campaigns. Enforcement of this requirement by the IRS and the Federal Election Commission is extremely lax, however.
"CatholicVote is in full compliance with all laws pertaining to our organization," Burch told the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). "All of our programs and expenditures are thoroughly reviewed by our legal and compliance team. We will spend over $9.7 million during this election cycle to educate and turn out Catholic voters…"
Fidelis has a charitable nonprofit arm, Fidelis Center for Law and Justice, which doubles as the CatholicVote.org Education Fund. As nonprofits, both Fidelis groups are not required to disclose their donors, and few are known to the public. According to tax records consulted by CMD, known donors include the Chiaroscuro Foundation, which is led by investor Sean Fieler ($200,000 from 2014 to 2015); anti-LGBTQ hate group Alliance Defending Freedom Foundation ($615,000 from the 2014 to 2018 fiscal years); donor-advised fund sponsor the National Christian Foundation ($668,000 from 2014 to 2017); and the Martin Family Foundation, the charity of oil company founder John W. Martin, Jr. ($100,000 in 2018).
A Drastic Change in Messaging
In 2015, CatholicVote co-founder Joshua Mercer had relatively positive things to say about Biden.
"The Joe Biden style of Democrat has definite nostalgic appeal for many Catholic Democrats," Mercer told America Magazine. Moving forward, “There will be fewer and fewer blue-collar white Democrats, like Biden, who pay lip service to the pro-life position, even casting the occasional vote to the pro-life side...Joe Biden remains the best alternative to Hillary [Clinton]."
Two more CatholicVote co-founders, Brian Burch and Joseph Cella, called Trump "manifestly unfit to be president of the United States" in a March 2016 op-ed in National Review.
His appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice are offensive to any genuinely Catholic sensibility. He promised to order U.S. military personnel to torture terrorist suspects and to kill terrorists’ families—actions condemned by the Church and policies that would bring shame upon our country. And there is nothing in his campaign or his previous record that gives us grounds for confidence that he genuinely shares our commitments to the right to life, to religious freedom and the rights of conscience, to rebuilding the marriage culture, or to subsidiarity and the principle of limited constitutional government.
Just a few years later, their group is all-in for Trump and has a dramatically different message about the former vice president.
One video on CatholicVote's YouTube channel features Father Michael O'Connor, who calls Biden "an embarrassment to Catholicism."
An ad calls Biden’s Catholic faith a “lie” and claims he’s “hiding his shady connections to China and Ukraine,” referencing the botched hit pieces against him promoted by Rudy Giuliani and based on material potentially supplied by foreign agents.
The featured video on the CatholicVote YouTube channel claims that Biden is "sacrificing his Catholic values to kneel before the leftist mob." It shows a kneeling Biden, a reference to the widespread, anti-racist practice of athletes concerned with anti-Black police brutality kneeling during the National Anthem before sporting events. "Biden-Harris, the most anti-life presidential ticket ever," says Sister Dede Byrne in a clip from her Republican National Convention speech this year.
"We...stand by our criticism of Joe Biden's abortion up to birth position, recently validated by an independent fact-check organization used by Facebook," said Burch. "While Donald Trump has proven to be the most pro-life president in our nation's history, Joe Biden has abandoned the Catholic Church's foundational belief in the sanctity of life, including flip-flopping on his previous support of the Hyde Amendment, and has pledged to restart the war on the Little Sisters of the Poor."
Burch refers to Facebook having reversed its decision to block an ad claiming that Biden and Harris support abortion up until the moment of birth, but numerous other fact checks have determined that the claim is false.
CatholicVote's election tactics have not gone over well with some other Catholic groups.
"Donald Trump has either ignored or damaged almost every sacred priority that Pope Francis and Catholic Social Teaching says we must address," Lee Morrow, elections director at Network, a Catholic social justice lobbying group, told CMD. "Partisans, like CatholicVote and Father Frank Pavone, are desperate for Catholics to focus on their conspiratorial abortion claims, because any deep reflection on the equally sacred issues of our faith will drive voters away from Trump."
CatholicVote is not affiliated with the church, which has rules about its representatives engaging in electoral politics. The Vatican ordered Pavone to resign in July from two Trump campaign groups, Pro-Life Voices for Trump and Catholics for Trump.
CatholicVote's director of mission advancement is a member of Trump's Catholic advisory group, according to his LinkedIn page.
While CatholicVote attacks Biden's faith and claims to represent "real Catholics," more moderate Catholic groups are supporting Biden. The Biden campaign is actively courting Catholic voters, and a recent poll found that Biden had a 12 percent lead over Trump with likely voters who identify as Catholic. Additional polling shows Trump’s white Catholic support has declined.
Network has never endorsed a candidate for office, but this year the group published an "anti-endorsement" of Trump in August.
"Pope Francis has been clear about the sacred issues that Catholics and all people of good will are called to prioritize," said Network Executive Director Sister Simone Campbell in the anti-endorsement. "These include protecting people in poverty, the elderly, and migrants and rejecting racism. Donald Trump does not share these values or act on these principles. In a word, President Trump promotes racism. This evil cannot be ignored."
Morrow told CMD that the group is spending $150,000 on English and Spanish-language digital ads in swing states as part of its "Pope Francis Voter" campaign. "That's a small fraction of CatholicVote's dark money, but that just forces us to spend smarter," he added. The ads have reached over two million Catholic swing voters, said Morrow.
The editorial staff of the independent news outlet National Catholic Reporter implicitly endorsed Biden, listing many problems created or exacerbated by Trump and urging readers to "vote their conscience." It also opposed the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, whom CatholicVote vigorously supported.
Attack ads on YouTube are only one piece of the electioneering puzzle for CatholicVote. The group has been using geolocation to target churchgoers with political ads. The process, called geofencing, creates a virtual fence around an area, allowing data brokers and digital marketers to serve ads to those using their smartphones within that area or save the phones’ unique IDs for future use.
CatholicVote thinks that regular churchgoers are more conservative and, thus, more likely to vote for Republicans. Geofencing allows the group to track the rate at which individuals attend services, and the services CatholicVote employs can harness other user data to profile each smartphone owner. The group is reportedly targeting white suburban churcheswhere they think large numbers of potential Trump voters worship. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, Trump’s job approval was significantly higher among white Catholics who attend church at least once or twice a month.
By accessing users’ data, CatholicVote is able to identify those who are not registered to vote and encourage them to do so, as well as send ads supporting or opposing political candidates. The Committee on Communications of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is examining geofencing and other similar practices over concerns expressed by digital privacy advocates.
“Partisan activities are not what the church is. ...It’s always something you want to guard against,” said USCCB communications director James Rogers in March.
"CatholicVote's geofencing is another example of partisanship being more important than faith,” said Network’s Morrow. "I don't know about the folks at CatholicVote, but I'm at Mass to celebrate the Eucharist and reflect on the Gospel, not their idolatry of Donald Trump."
CatholicVote is taking advantage of large data operations by data firms Cambridge Analytica, i360—the data firm tied to billionaire GOP megadonor Charles Koch—and church-focused app company Gloo. A new documentary, People You May Know, investigates this coordinated effort to profile potential Republican voters. The project began as a way for churches to recruit more members but branched out into politics, a field in which Cambridge Analytica was already heavily involved. The data identified Americans who may be struggling with mental health, alcoholism, or other issues that could make them more susceptible to church-based support services.
In the 2020 election cycle, CatholicVote has reported paying $72,000 to a firm named Political Social Media, LLC, also known as uCampaign, for peer-to-peer texting services supporting Trump. The firm was founded by CatholicVote consultant and blogger Thomas Peters in 2014 with $150,000 from Sean Fieler, the Fidelis Center for Law and Justice donor. Fieler was also on the president's 2016 Catholic Advisory Board and is an adviser at Catholics for Trump.
uCampaign makes smartphone apps that access users' phone directories and encourage users to send text messages to friends and family, urging them to support the app sponsors’ preferred candidates. The original apps, some of which have been discontinued, automatically sent text messages after users gave the app permission, often unwittingly, by approving dense terms of service.
According to Anne Nelson’s book, Shadow Network, uCampaign has designed apps for a number of right-wing political groups, including the National Rifle Association, Susan B. Anthony List, and the Family Research Council, as well as for the 2016 Trump campaign.
Leaders of these and other organizations are members of the Council for National Policy (CNP), a powerful, secretive group of leading right-wing figures that has influenced Republican politicians and administrations for decades. Many CNP leaders, including Ralph Reed, are evangelical Christians, but the group has recruited Catholics and has a Catholic caucus. Other key CNP members include Pavone and fellow right-wing Catholic Leonard Leo, the mastermind between a giant dark-money network that has spent tens of millions of dollars to help install conservative justices on the Supreme Court, including Trump's latest selection, Amy Coney Barrett.
CatholicVote's Burch was listed as a CNP member in a 2016 CNP Action newsletter, and he is also an official with the allied United in Purpose coalition.
"CatholicVote and its data project are part of a massive web of operations, designed to manipulate American communities of faith for political ends," Nelson told CMD. "These are coordinated through CNP and United in Purpose. The fundamentalist-right-wing Catholic alliance has been years in the making. In May, Ralph Reed boasted that they had built 'a pre-qualified voter file' of over 40 million evangelical and Catholic voters for targeted canvassing and campaign operations, 'literally giving them a link to an app that will take them directly to their voting location that...will track as they vote in the state.'"
The super PAC of a conservative political nonprofit, the American Principles Project, recently used a text messaging service that Peters founded, RumbleUp, to send disinformation about Biden to Democratic voters in swing states. Peer-to-peer texting services allow political staff to send messages en masse and without the recipients' consent because of a loophole in federal communications law. Campaigns must obtain a person’s consent before sending automated messages, but because humans direct the texts, peer-to-peer messaging companies say they’re exempt from the consent requirement.
The chairman of the American Principles Project super PAC is Fieler, who gave $200,000 this summer. The American Principle Project's executive director is Terry Schilling, the son of Bobby Schilling, a former congressman and unsuccessful Republican candidate for U.S. House in Iowa this year. The elder Schilling is one of the only candidates that CatholicVote has supported with independent expenditures in the 2020 election cycle. The group spent $13,610 on peer-to-peer texting and Facebook ads supporting Schilling.
Another CatholicVote employee is financially invested in the group's political expenditures. Co-founder Brian Burch owns 25 percent of VerveMail, which CatholicVote has used as a vendor. From 2016 to 2018, CatholicVote and its 501(c)(3) affiliate have paid VerveMail $190,000 for email marketing, according to IRS tax records.
A CatholicVote donor researcher previously worked as an account manager at VerveMail.
The Fidelis Center for Law and Justice paid its president, Patrick Gillen, $84,000 in legal retainer fees over that time period.
A prominent CNP figure is also profiting from CatholicVote. Richard Viguerie, a founding member who hosted the first-ever CNP gathering in 1981, is a direct mail pioneer who launched American Target Advertising in 1965 after working on Republican Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. The company is still going strong—CatholicVote has paid American Target Advertising $222,000 so far this cycle for mailers backing Trump or opposing Biden. The firm received nearly $850,000 for fundraising services from CatholicVote from 2016 to 2018.
One Twitter user posted a CatholicVote mailer in August:
Underscoring how +Tom Tobin’s imaginary excomm of Biden plays into Trump campaign strategy – POTUS now 20 points down from 2016 with white Catholics – GOP SuperPAC circulating this mailer (via @JVLast)
— Rocco Palmo (@roccopalmo) August 12, 2020
The Michigan field director of CatholicVote is also a copywriter for American Target Advertising. Viguerie was a member of Trump's 2016 Catholic advisory board.
In 2018, Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist and the former chair of far-right Breitbart News, worked with CatholicVote to use geofencing to get out the Catholic vote in Iowa. Bannon is a former CNP member.
Through CNP and multiple Catholic organizations, CatholicVote leaders have ties to the Trump administration and to the powerful, dark-money judicial confirmation network led by Federalist Society Co-Chair Leonard Leo. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) recently mapped out that network, citing CMD's research and reporting, in a lengthy presentation during a Barrett confirmation hearing.
Joseph Cella, a co-founder of CatholicVote, is the founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, which is closely linked to the Trump administration. Cella was Catholic liaison for Trump's 2016 campaign and managed its Catholic advisory group. He then worked on Trump’s transition team and is now the U.S. ambassador to Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu.
Leo is president of the breakfast group, and he and White House counsel Pat Cipollone are also founders. Multiple Trump administration leaders have been featured speakers at National Catholic Prayer Breakfast events, including Vice President Mike Pence (2017), then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney (2019), and Attorney General Bill Barr (2020).
CatholicVote's 501(c)(3) arm is a Prayer Breakfast sponsor this year, along with Alliance Defending Freedom.
The Prayer Breakfast gave Barr its annual award this year, which he accepted from Leo before speaking at the event in September. That decision divided Catholics, many of whom were shocked that a Catholic group would praise someone who resumed federal executions for the first time in nearly two decades.
Barr is a "culture warrior Catholic," according to the National Catholic Reporter, and although he said he is not a member of Opus Dei, he served on the board of the Catholic Information Center, an Opus Dei-affiliated bookstore near the White House. Leo and Cipollone have also been board members.
Featured image: Screenshot from CatholicVote ad on YouTube