Meet the 2024 presidential race’s evangelical kingmaker

Chad Connelly, CEO of Faith Wins, is training a nationwide cohort of pastors to vet GOP candidates

Chad Connelly’s path to politics was an unconventional one. Years ago, long before he entered the political arena, his mother-in-law died. The sudden loss sent his wife into a bout of depression. She soon took her own life, leaving Connelly as the widowed father of two young boys. “Sometimes in the lowest places,” Connelly told a group of churchgoers in Las Vegas, “God says, ‘I’m not done with you.’”

It’s a Tuesday night, and Connelly is addressing a small congregation inside the Truth Christian Ministries International Church. The church is usually shuttered on Tuesdays, but the pastor has called a special meeting. This is unlike their Sunday worship services or their Wednesday Bible study. Tonight, their guest is sharing his story — how he went from an upbringing in small-town South Carolina, to a career in engineering, to family tragedy, to national politics. Connelly, the church’s guest, has emerged as perhaps the most active evangelical political organizer in the 2024 presidential race.

Connelly isn’t your typical evangelical kingmaker. He’s not a pastor, nor is he linked to one of the longstanding powerbrokers, like the Christian Coalition or the Faith & Freedom Coalition. He’s not a traditional politician, either — aside from a stint as the Republican Party chair in South Carolina, he’s never held elected office. But under the banner of his organization Faith Wins, Connelly has amassed an army of some 16,000 evangelical pastors, to whom he’s issued two specific requests: register your congregants to vote, and teach them to vote “Biblical values.”

“It’s not political — it’s all spiritual,” Connelly says frequently.

Connelly’s organization, formed before the 2020 election, has quickly gained outsize influence in the national conservative political sphere. He has pastors involved in all 50 states, though the highest concentrations are in swing states like Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. And with reason — this election cycle, his pastors have held over 40 closed-door meetings with eight Republican presidential candidates, including several front-runners: former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. 

In those closed-door meetings, Faith Wins pastors are focused on determining whether the candidate will govern with a “Biblical worldview.” They may ask any number of faith-related questions: What does your daily walk in the Lord look like? Do you read the Bible each morning? Who is your faith counselor? From there, they delve into foreign and domestic policy questions, often circling back to social issues like abortion or gay marriage.

Connelly’s mobilizing blitz comes at a unique juncture on the religious right. Trump, who garnered landslide support from white evangelicals in both 2016 and 2020, is starting to raise concerns among some religious conservatives with his more moderate messaging on abortion. And while evangelicals still dominate early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, the rise of religious “nones” has eroded, to a some degree, the longstanding evangelical monopoly within the GOP primary.

That leaves Connelly, and his thousands of pastors, with a bit of leverage. While evangelicals filed behind Trump in 2020, that support is no longer guaranteed. Other Republican candidates, from DeSantis (a Catholic) to Ramaswamy (a Hindu), hope to gain their support. And Connelly — in his closed-door candidate meetings and evening congregational chats — are open to hearing them out. 

“Jesus ain’t running,” Connelly says. “So you’re voting for the lesser of two evils.”

Chad Connelly, founder and CEO of Faith Wins, speaks at TCMI Church in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

Most political observers have never heard of Connelly. In conservative evangelical circles, though, his is already a household name. If you ask Mike Huckabee — the enigmatic Southern Baptist pastor and former presidential candidate — about him, Huckabee will say he’s as good as “anyone in the country” at getting evangelicals involved in the political process.

“He recognizes that issues that unite and ignite the faith community are moral and Biblical issues, and not issues of tax policy or defense strategy,” Huckabee told me. “But Biblical issues are non-negotiable for the faith voter.”

Connelly wasn’t always this involved. He began his career as an engineer, before slowly shifting into the political sphere. He began curating a public image as a motivational speaker and author in the early 2000s, writing a book about “the solid values that once formed the bedrock of American society” and speaking about how losing his wife forced him to turn to God. In 2011, he ran for chair of the South Carolina Republican Party and won, inheriting a party in financial distress and losing national credibility. Two days before his election, the first Republican presidential debate of the 2012 cycle was held in Greenville; but most of the best-known candidates declined to attend, including Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee.

“Jesus ain’t running. So you’re voting for the lesser of two evils.”

It was an omen of the broader landscape. Late into the summer of 2011, South Carolina — usually an early battle state for the Republican nomination — was a political ghost town. Most of the state’s big-name officeholders had yet to make an endorsement. There were few, if any, targeted TV or radio ads. On-the-ground campaign staff was nonexistent.

Much of it echoed a broader uncertainty. A battle over who would fund South Carolina’s presidential primary election — the state government or the financially-strapped state party — threatened the state’s status as an early-voting state. Whether the state would retain its status as the “first-in-the-South” presidential primary was anyone’s guess. But Connelly was determined. On the day he was elected party chair, he vowed to keep South Carolina first and to host another debate in the state.

“If we have to trick-or-treat and have the first vote, we’re going to do it,” he said.

The party made good on his promise. It scheduled its primary for late January, moving the rest of the country’s dates forward and preventing a potential conflict with Florida, another southern state pursuing an early primary. And three other debates were held in South Carolina, a pair of them hosted by the state’s Republican Party. Two of those debates were within a week of the state’s primary election.

Chaos was averted. The nation was again paying attention to South Carolina.

In 2013, Connelly won reelection as party chair, then stepped down within a month to become the Republican National Committee’s first-ever director of faith engagement. The new position came out of the GOP’s infamous “autopsy” after Romney’s 2012 loss — a holistic investigation into why Republicans had lost two straight presidential elections and diagnoses on how to stop the bleeding. Most of the recommendations were demographic in nature — like targeting working-class voters, Hispanics, African Americans and young people. Evangelicals were an afterthought, as Romney had outperformed McCain in that category. Still, the autopsy called for increased outreach.

“We’ve been so focused on getting our message out to new folks that we’ve forgotten to engage with people of faith, who are really the bedrock of our party,” Connelly said, shortly after taking the position.

Connelly hit the road, meeting with some 80,000 pastors (in his estimation) in the three years preceding the 2016 election. His pitch was simple: all things are spiritual, including so-called political issues. So why aren’t your congregants turning out to the polls?

Chad Connelly, founder and CEO of Faith Wins, speaks at TCMI Church in Las Vegas.
Chad Connelly, founder and CEO of Faith Wins, speaks at TCMI Church in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. | Samuel Benson, Deseret News

Come November 2016, evangelicals did turn out, in record fashion: 80% of white evangelicals backed Trump, the highest proportion for a Republican candidate ever recorded. Conservative evangelicals took a victory lap. Connelly was praised as the “unsung hero” of Trump’s election.

In early 2017, when much of the high-level RNC staff took jobs in the Trump White House, Connelly looked for a new gig. He ran for Congress, and lost. He then decided to take his mobilizing act on the road. He started Faith Wins, an organization engineered to do exactly what Connelly did as the RNC’s evangelical outreach director: meet with pastors and get their congregants to vote.

In the buildup to the 2024 election, Faith Wins is more active than ever. Some 16,000 pastors have participated in Faith Wins events, Connelly says, in all 50 states.

In March, a group of 80 pastors visited Tim Scott in Washington and sang “Amazing Grace” in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. In June, 40 pastors prayed over Donald Trump in Des Moines and pressed him on abortion policy. Six other Republican presidential hopefuls have met with Connelly’s pastors, each one passing through the same process of questioning (on abortion, gay marriage, Israel or other policy issues) and a shared prayer. When the pastors finish, they report to their congregations about what they learned.

Connelly told me he’s invited all the Democratic candidates for meetings, as well — from President Joe Biden and writer Marianne Williamson to attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Connelly said his team is “in conversations” to host a meeting with Kennedy, who’s reportedly mulling an independent run.)

Beyond that, Connelly is traveling the country with a group of pundits — including Glenn Beck — on their “American Restoration Tour,” where they make the same pitch straight to congregations. “We don’t tell them who to vote for or how to vote, but we tell them to vote biblically,” Connelly said.

The stakes are higher than ever, Connelly claims. Christians have been sitting on the sidelines for too long, and it’s time they knock down the artificial barriers between their religious lives and their political involvement. The people who are set those rules for engagement, Connelly says, are people who “hate our God.”

“They say, ‘Oh, you Christians shouldn’t be involved in that, because you’re gonna offend somebody,” Connelly said. “We’ve put on our turn-the-other-cheek Jesus.”

He paused, surveying his Las Vegas audience. “I think times dictate we better find our turn-the-tables-over Jesus.” The crowd cheered its approval.