Monday, June 25, 2007

Democrats and the Catholic Vote

Catholics were once a core constituency of the Democratic Party. that is true no longer. Bush won the Catholic vote despite the fact that his opponent, John Kerry was himself Catholic. As U.S. News and World Report notes, however, the Democratic Party is taking some serious steps to win back at least some of the Catholics that have voted Republican in previous elections:

A Roman Catholic nun who leads a social justice advocacy group called Network, Simone Campbell rarely got a phone call from Capitol Hill before the 2006 election. Campbell, based in Washington, D.C., says she "wore her knuckles bare" fruitlessly knocking on lawmakers' doors, particularly those of Democrats who should have been natural allies on issues like raising the minimum wage and comprehensive immigration reform.

Then came last year's midterm elections. Campbell joined a new Catholic voter-turnout operation working to reverse the wilting Catholic support Democrats had seen in 2004. After her efforts helped elect Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania, her phone began ringing. Campbell's group is now regularly invited to meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On a recent conference call about immigration with other religious activists, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York announced at the last minute that she wanted to jump on. Campbell was asked to give the closing prayer at a big Democratic National Committee meeting last winter. "I stopped being a pariah," she says. "Now, I'm value added."

Indeed, having witnessed both George W. Bush's victory among Catholics in 2004 and the Catholic vote's dramatic rejection of Republicans last year, Democrats are now waging a multifront offensive to shore up what was once a bedrock constituency. The Democratic National Committee has hired its first director of Catholic outreach. The DNC is also slated to soon unveil an organizing hub for Catholics on its website, and it's planning to supply state parties with Catholic voter lists before the 2008 election. Catholic Democrats in Congress are introducing legislation to reduce demand for abortion, a top issue for the Roman Catholic Church. And some Democratic presidential candidates are already devising Catholic outreach plans. "You know things have gotten off track when a Roman Catholic candidate has to do outreach to people within his own church," says Senator Casey, discussing his own 2006 outreach effort. "But we're getting it back on track now." With Catholics accounting for 1 in 5 American voters, the mobilization could determine whether Democrats win the White House and keep control of Congress in 2008.

"Catholics are ideal targets" for Democrats courting religious voters, says University of Akron political scientist John Green. Many Catholics are political centrists, unlike overwhelmingly conservative evangelical Christians. Catholics also tend to be less observant than evangelicals and so are less likely to tow the church line politically. What's more, the Catholic Church's promotion of social welfare programs and its opposition to war (including Iraq) dovetails with the Democratic Party platform.

But Catholics face cross-pressures from their church to oppose abortion and gay marriage, pushing them closer to the GOP. In 2004, a handful of Catholic bishops denounced Democratic nominee John Kerry's pro-abortion-rights position; one said he'd deny Kerry, a Catholic, the Eucharist. Kerry lost white Catholics—who make up the vast majority of the Catholic community—to Bush by 56 to 43 percent. By contrast, the only Catholic ever elected president, John F. Kennedy, won nearly 80 percent of the Catholic vote. Analysts blame Kerry's weak showing among Catholics largely on his unassertive response to the bishops' attacks.


What is interesting about this strategy is that the party is trying to confront the issue of abortion while still essentially keeping a pro-choice position. How? By focusing on the real issue, and not buying into the notion that the abortion issue can be narrowly defined by the decision whether to criminalize abortion. Instead, Democrats are asking what can be done to reduce the number of abortions:
The DNC's new Catholic outreach director, John Kelly, is an alumnus of the Pennsylvania and Ohio campaigns. He has already met with scores of Catholic leaders, devising "practical solutions" on hot-button issues like abortion. Those solutions include three Democratic proposals in Congress to reduce the number of abortions. One, cosponsored by Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, seeks to help prevent unwanted pregnancies through education and contraception (which is opposed by the Catholic Church) and to provide counseling and economic assistance to low-income, pregnant women to dissuade them from having abortions. DeLauro says Catholics who support abortion rights must stand up against what she considers the church's attacks: "There are people who have used religion and the Eucharist as a political weapon, and we as Catholics have to speak out to define ourselves."

Read it all.

As the article notes, unlike the Evangelical vote, many Catholics are centrists and are otherwise attracted to the Democratic Party's positions on economics and social justice issues. And while the party's position on abortion will not satisfy all Catholic voters, the focus on the need to reduce abortions may be enough for more moderate pro-life Catholic voters.

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