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Will Catholics Lean Right or Left in '08?

Battling for the Catholic Vote


By Bill Berkowitz

Will Catholics Lean Right or Left in '08?

Over the past two decades, Catholic voters -- once consistent supporters of the Democratic Party -- have been heavily courted by the Republican Party.

In the 2004 presidential election, Republican organizers, together with a cadre of high-profile neoconservative Catholics, focused on winning Catholic votes by forging an alliance with conservative evangelical Christians based on two hot-button "culture war" issues: abortion and same-sex marriage.

In that year's presidential election, President George W. Bush received 52 percent of the Catholic vote, up from 47 percent in 2000, to John Kerry's 47 percent.

Two years later, however, Catholics, who compose a 67 million-person slice of the U.S. population, favored Democrats by 55 percent to 45 percent, according to National Election Pool exit polls. The Religion News Service reported that Catholic voting patterns varied by state, but the overall shift significantly helped Democrats in such big states as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Are Catholic voters heading home for the long term?

'Catholics do not heed the bishops on many issues,' says Jon O'Brien of Catholics for a Free Choice

During the 2006 campaign, Democratic candidates appeared to be more comfortable talking about their religious beliefs; attempted to broaden the "values" debate to include poverty, health care, the environment, and care for those with AIDS; and devoted significant resources to countering the Republican Party's well-established Catholic project.

"Some people posit that the Catholic vote is influenced" by statements and declarations of the Catholic bishops, Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, told me in a telephone interview. In fact, O'Brien pointed out, "Catholics do not heed the bishops on many issues." On abortion and same-sex marriage, for example, "Catholic voters' [opinions] tend to mirror those of the general public."

"Like the rest of the electorate, Catholics resonate most deeply on bread and butter issues, health care, minimum wage, etc. The abortion issue is way down the list of issues of concern. In general," O'Brien added, "Catholics do not care as deeply about the hot-button issues of same-sex marriage and abortion as conservatives would have you believe."

For the greater part of the twentieth century, U.S. Catholics were loyal Democrats. In recent elections, however, Catholic voting patterns became largely indistinguishable from the general population. "And for the last quarter-century, conservative Catholics and white evangelicals have increasingly voted Republican, making opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage their top political issues," Religion News Service pointed out.

The Catholic vote in 2008 will be "very important", the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and former editor of America magazine who writes and comments widely on Catholics and politics, told me in an e-mail.

"Catholics have voted for the winner in every election since 1932, except in 2000 when they voted for [Democratic candidate Al] Gore along with a majority of U.S. voters, but the U.S. Supreme Court gave the presidency to Bush. The Catholics are the most important swing vote."

Reese also noted that immigration ranks high among the concerns of Hispanic Catholics, "and the issue is driving them away from the Republicans".

Prior to 2006, the Republicans' multi-year organizing effort to woo Catholic voters paid off in part because, working hand-in-glove with conservative foundations, it sought, found and funded a number of Catholic neoconservatives who became key spokespersons for the Republican Party.

Deal or no Deal

By 2004, with Deal Hudson, an editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, at the controls, the Republican Party's Catholic project was firing on all cylinders.

Then the National Catholic Reporter broke a story that forced Hudson to the political sidelines.

Ten years earlier, Hudson had left a professorship at Fordham University to take over the helm at Crisis. Unknown at the time, his departure from Fordham was not voluntary as had been widely reported. Hudson was forced to resign after university officials discovered that he had been involved in sexual activities with an inebriated young coed.

The 2004 revelations forced Hudson to resign as chair of the Republican National Committee's "Catholic Outreach" effort, and from Crisis as well. Despite the Hudson scandal, the mission of the Catholic Team has remained the same, "to continue the realignment of Catholics as members of the Republican Party," according to the Republican National Committee's website.


Democrats reach out to Catholics

U.S. News & World Report recently reported that before the 2006 election, Democrats began organizing a Catholic voter project that aimed "to reverse the wilting Catholic support Democrats had seen in 2004."

In light of the results of the 2006 midterm elections, which saw Democrats take control of both the House and Senate for the first time in more than a decade, the party is "now waging a multi-front offensive to shore up what was once a bedrock constituency," U.S. News pointed out.

The Democratic National Committee hired its first director of Catholic outreach, has a special organizing link for Catholics on its website, and will supply state parties with Catholic voter lists before the Nov. 4, 2008 election.

These days, although no longer a political kingmaker, Deal Hudson continues to try and convince Catholics to cast their lot with the Religious Right. On his website he is peddling a new 5-CD set called "The Truth About the Religious Right," which he claims will give listeners "every fact" they "need to expose and refute the Left's attacks on Christians in politics." Hudson maintains that "an attack on the religious right is actually an attack" on faithful Catholics.

Hudson believes that the 2006 election cycle "saw an unprecedented assault on religious voters. Over a dozen books were released warning Americans about the 'coming Christian Theocracy.' And the media has been spinning the Republican's loss in November as America 'saying no' to traditional values voters. The truth is, the Left and their allies in the media couldn't be more wrong."

Catholics for a Free Choice's O'Brien, who is paying attention to Hudson's recent writing, believes that much of it is "wishful thinking by a [longtime] conservative operative." Conservatives "wish Catholics were motivated by their core social issues, but that is just not the case," O'Brien told me.

"Some Catholics are part of the religious right, and many conservative Catholics have similar values," John Green, a senior fellow in religion and U.S. politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, told me in an e-mail. "But moderate and liberal Catholics have very different political perspectives."

To the dismay of Catholic conservatives and neoconservatives, many of the issues on the table in 2006 -- the war in Iraq, health care, immigration -- that caused Catholics to come back to the Democratic Party will undoubtedly still be important to Catholic voters in 2008.

When asked whether Republicans will be able to recapture the majority of Catholic voters as they did in 2004, Green said that, "It is hard to say. Right now, polls suggests this will be hard to accomplish. But we don't have presidential candidates yet and much can change once the campaign gets underway."

*************

For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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