Bush's Catholic Outreach Guru: GOP Leaving Catholics Dispirited

Deal Hudson says Democratic-allied Catholic groups have changed the game for Catholic voters.

By + More

By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Trying to understand why Republican leaders have been all but silent on Kathleen Sebelius's appointment to head the Department of Health and Human Services even as the party's antiabortion base goes ballistic, I spoke yesterday with Deal Hudson, who directed Catholic outreach for George W. Bush's presidential campaigns. Hudson has launched a website called Catholics Against Kathleen Sebelius.

You've written that the Republican wall of silence over Kathleen Sebelius is misguided. But what explains it?

They are playing it safe. They think a sea change has occurred in American politics, represented by Obama's victory, and they are trying to rebrand the party in a way that they think is more popular. The conversations I'm hearing in Washington right now are, "Where else are those [values] voters going to go—they'll come around because they have no other way of having influence." What party officials and professional Republicans don't understand, with the exception of Karl Rove, is that these are voters who will walk away and they will cultivate their own garden until they have a leader who makes decisions based on principles and is willing to lose. They will walk away, and the Republicans will lose as a result. So it's a bad tactical choice to leave this group of people dispirited.

But isn't one lesson of the 2008 election that values voters—white evangelicals—will vote for the Republican no matter what? John McCain did a poor job of evangelical outreach, but he got more evangelical votes than George W. Bush in 2004.

But Republicans have to worry about Catholics. We know that evangelical voting habits are much more deeply engrained than Catholics'. And Catholics are potentially just as sizable a number of votes. I calculated that between 1996 and 2004, we brought in around 7 million Catholic voters to the Republican Party. And even those evangelicals won't hang around and continue to support lackadaisical and half-hearted candidates. Even they will begin to drift away. In 2008, a lot of them were voting Republican out of gratitude for eight years of Bush leadership.

A new poll by Pew's John Green suggests that Obama doubled his share of traditionalist Catholic votes from Kerry 's level in 2004. Is that proof that a Catholic shift has already happened?

I've got to believe that something went wrong with that poll. But some of these traditionalist Catholics, their parents and grandparents were Democrats. And they want to be Democrats again. So Obama's religious outreach did very effectively give a lot of those people the sense that it was OK to come back. From a political point of view, they did a very good job of that. But this is an important moment for Michael Steele, who I like very much, and a very important moment for the party. The Republican grass roots right now, they don't want political calibration and calculation. They want the leadership to fight for the country.

It's fascinating to compare Catholic criticism against John Kerry in 2004 to that now leveled against Sebelius. Now there are Democratic-allied Catholic groups like Catholics United to come to Sebelius's defense. Those groups didn't exist in 2004. Have they made a difference?

Now you're forcing me to say nice things about the people who like to beat me up. From a political point of view, those groups made a big difference. When you can get what is taken as a Catholic organization in the mainstream press supporting your guy, that adds a whole new element. We were successful in 2000 and 2004 in keeping the [liberal Catholic groups] Voice of the Faithful and Call to Action at bay because we were able to label them dissident. We haven't been able to do that with Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance. The other groups claimed to be about the church, so at a certain point the church standard had to be respected. These new groups aren't speaking to the church per se. They're grounded in faithful citizenship. So there's no real reason for the press to adjudicate who's really Catholic.

  • Read more by Dan Gilgoff.
  • Read more about Republicans.