Democrats Set Their Sights on Winning Back Catholics
Learning from Kerry's loss, lawmakers craft abortion stands
As the 2006 election cycle got underway, a Democratic consulting firm called Common Good Strategies emerged, and new liberal religious groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good worked in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Kansas to prevent a few conservative bishops and the GOP from defining the "values" debate. "Before that, religious voters felt they had no place to go that was not right of center," says Network's Campbell, who helped frame affordable healthcare and opposition to the Iraq war as values issues. Common Good Strategies enlisted nuns to do phone banking, while Casey delivered a major speech on faith and politics at the Catholic University of America. He wound up winning 58 percent of the white Catholic vote, even though he was challenging Sen. Rick Santorum, an antiabortion Catholic.
New ideas. 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."
Of course, DeLauro and other Catholic Democrats run the risk of seeming to be at loggerheads with their own church. Some in the church hierarchy insist that's the case because the church won't accept any position on abortion that falls short of criminalizing it. "The primary issue for the Catholic bishops is the life issue," says one highly placed source in the church hierarchy. "Democrats don't have an openness on that issue, and that will always be the block." Some moderate and conservative Catholics, meanwhile, say the Democrats' Catholic outreach so far has focused almost exclusively on liberal social justice organizations. "I've not heard anything from the DNC," says Raymond Flynn, a conservative Catholic Democrat who was ambassador to the Vatican under President Clinton and now leads Catholic Citizenship, a major lay Catholic group.
Flynn, who supported Bush in 2000, says the only Democrats reaching out to him are presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and her husband. The Clinton campaign is also corresponding regularly with its growing list of religious supporters, tagging Catholics in its database for more specialized outreach down the road.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, meanwhile, is hosting values forumsincluding five in New Hampshire during one week in Junethat are drawing many Catholics. Former Sen. John Edwards's campaign manager, David Bonior, is a onetime Catholic seminarian. Bonior attributes Kerry's loss largely to his failure to articulate antiwar and economic justice positions that would have appealed to Catholics, giving Bush an opening to target them on abortion and gay marriage. "The difference is that John Edwards gives them a place to go on the war and a place to go on economic policy," Bonior says.
And, depending on what happens in Congress, Democrats might have a place for them to go on abortion, too.