Kathleen Sebelius and the Evolution of Catholic Democrats

Antiabortion groups have opposed Sebelius's nomination to the Department of Health and Human Services.

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A Democratic nominee to a national post attempts to project a culturally conservative image, claiming to be a committed Roman Catholic who personally opposes abortion. But conservative Catholic groups call that religious commitment into question. The Democrat's local bishop publicly criticizes the nominee's abortion stance, opening a gap between the purported believer and the Catholic Church. Antiabortion groups launch a campaign to show that, despite the nominee's "personal opposition" to abortion, a record of votes supporting abortion rights suggests otherwise. Can the Democratic nominee's image as a cultural moderate survive?

It depends on which Democrat you're talking about.

In 2004, John Kerry, a former altar boy, withered under attacks from conservative Catholics and antiabortion groups. He lost the Catholic vote, a dramatic turnabout from the previous Catholic nominee for president, John F. Kennedy, who won about 80 percent of Catholics.

Now comes Kathleen Sebelius, the pro-abortion rights Catholic Democrat whom Barack Obama named this week to run the Department of Health and Human Services. Early indications are she is holding up a lot better under harsh criticism from her own bishop, conservative Catholics, and antiabortion groups, who viewed her nomination as their best chance yet to throw a wrench in the White House's liberal social agenda. Instead, Republican leaders have mostly refused to attack Sebelius, even as their base vents outrage over the "pro-abortion zealot." The contrast between the Kerry and Sebelius experiences shows how the politics of abortion and religion has been turned upside down as of late. Democrats have grown increasingly savvy about navigating "values" terrain, while Republicans have gone wobbly on ground they've long held.

The biggest difference between Kerry and Sebelius is that Kerry lacked a network of credible Catholic groups to come to his defense. The way the press covered the story in 2004, it looked as if Kerry was waging a lonely battle against the very church that he claimed was his spiritual home.

It wasn't until after the 2004 election that progressive organizations like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good even got off the ground, largely in response to Kerry's Catholic debacle. With a heads-up from the White House that Sebelius was a likely HHS nominee, Catholics United built a website called Catholics for Sebelius and prepared a media strategy for countering the inevitable criticism from the right. "From a political point of view, those groups made a big difference," says Deal Hudson, who directed Catholic outreach for George W. Bush's presidential campaigns and has launched a website called Catholics Against Sebelius. "When you get what is taken as a Catholic organization in the mainstream press supporting your guy, that adds a whole new element."

Another big change for the Democrats is the party's development of an abortion-reduction strategy built around providing assistance to pregnant women as opposed to the antiabortion movement's traditional tack of opposing abortion rights. A product of Democrats' bungled 2004 outreach to so-called values voters, "abortion reduction" was enshrined in the 2008 Democratic platform. This week it gave Sebelius's faith-based defenders armor against antiabortion groups, which have noted that she vetoed a string of late-term abortion restrictions as governor of Kansas. Catholics United has countered that Sebelius lowered Kansas's abortion rate, "an answer that's respectful of pro-life views," says James Salt, the group's organizing director.

The Republican response to the Sebelius nomination suggests that the party has grown queasier about trumpeting such views. "If Republicans won't take a stand now, when will they?" the Family Research Council asked in an E-mail to supporters this week that lambasted GOP silence on Sebelius. Having lost the middle in the 2008 election, the party appears to lack the stomach for an abortion-fueled nomination fight. "They are trying to rebrand the party," says Hudson. "The conversations I'm hearing in Washington right now are, 'Where else are those [values] voters going to go?' "