WASHINGTON — Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. is endorsing Donald Trump for president, a blow to the GOP front-runner’s chief challenger, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“(Trump) is a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again,” Falwell said in a statement released by Trump’s campaign.
Trump said in the statement that Falwell’s support “means so much to me.” He also tweeted his appreciation.
“Great honor- Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University, one of the most respected religious leaders in our nation, has just endorsed me!” he said.
The endorsement was first reported by The Washington Post Tuesday morning.
Although Falwell is not a minister, as Trump’s tweet suggests, as the president of Liberty University, he leads the world’s largest evangelical university.
The university is a popular destination for presidential candidates. Cruz launched his campaign there last March; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush delivered the commencement address last spring; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson spoke at the school in November; and in September, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, became the first Democratic presidential contender to speak at the university.
Trump spoke at the university last week and flubbed his delivery of a Bible passage, citing “two Corinthians,” rather than “Second Corinthians,” as it is commonly known, raising questions about his familiarity with the Bible.
Despite the flub, Falwell, who cut a radio advertisement for Trump last week, was laudatory of the real-estate magnate, glowingly comparing Trump to his father due to their shared propensity for eschewing political correctness.
Among some evangelicals, the endorsement could give Trump an advantage over Cruz, Johnnie Moore, the former senior vice president of Liberty University, told CNN on Tuesday.
“I do absolutely think Falwell and Liberty are responsible for the rapid increase in evangelical support for Trump and the decline in support for Cruz,” he said. “The ‘Falwell’ and ‘Liberty’ brand remain absolutely unmatched in influence in this country among conservative, politically active evangelicals. Trump won the biggest possible prize in this endorsement, among this evangelical constituency.”
Former Texas governor and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry — who endorsed Cruz for president on Monday — said Falwell’s support will leave many evangelicals with questions given some of Trump’s past statements about his faith.
“There’s not any question about the evangelical vote being strongly behind Ted Cruz. They are,” Perry told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin on “CNN Newsroom” Tuesday. “Jerry Falwell will have to explain to his followers why he’s supporting someone who stood up in front of the people of Iowa and said, when asked if you’ve ever done anything to ask forgiveness from God, said no.”
Cruz, a Southern Baptist, has been steadfast in his attempt to connect with Iowa’s evangelical voters, believing they could give him what he needs to overtake Trump in the first-in-the-nation voting state. But Trump is still leading among white evangelicals nationally, with 39% support, well ahead of Cruz, who had 25%, and Carson (11%), according to a CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday.
Still, syndicated radio show host Hugh Hewitt wrote this week in a CNN Opinion piece that he believes Cruz will win Iowa because he has relationships with church leaders that Trump does not.
“I think the ‘Trump tsunami’ is real and he will win in New Hampshire,” Hewitt wrote. “But I am betting on Sen. Cruz in Iowa because I think enough pastors have been persuaded that Ted Cruz understands their concerns and their hopes, shares their vision and their values, can sing their songs and knows their message.”