Democrats Set Their Sights on Winning Back Catholics
Learning from Kerry's loss, lawmakers craft abortion stands
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 Catholicswho make up the vast majority of the Catholic communityto 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.