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ELECTION 2002: Local races shaped by bread and butter issues


Two scenes from Campaign 2002:

Fifteen-year-old Nick Reichel is singled out by President Bush at an Oct. 18 rally for Minnesota Republican senatorial candidate Norm Coleman. Bush praises the young man’s 400 hours of volunteer service, calling him a soldier in the “armies of compassion.” Reichel’s mother, Kim, looks on proudly, sporting a “Catholics for Coleman” sticker.

Three days later, Missouri Republican senatorial candidate Jim Talent is asked his view of stem cell research. Invoking Catholic-friendly language, the 46-year-old Presbyterian says he supports limits on the research because it is a matter of “the dignity and value of individual human life.” He uses the question to reiterate his opposition to “partial-birth abortion,” a view not shared by his opponent, Democratic incumbent Jean Carnahan.

War and terrorism combined with bread and butter issues -- jobs, health care, Social Security and the environment -- dominate debates and media buys in the nation’s most competitive senate and gubernatorial elections. But there’s an undercurrent in the close races -- an appeal to religious voters motivated by faith-driven concerns -- that could ultimately shape control of Congress, and return several large states to Democratic control for the first time since the 1980s.

The variables in this off-year election -- a sagging economy and a popular president, the threat of war, the traditional loss of seats by an incumbent party in a non-presidential year, the razor-thin margins that account for Democratic control of the Senate and Republican control of the House -- are too great for any analyst to single out one group and call them key to control of the Senate or key state houses.

Still, said Loyola Marymount Political Science professor Matthew Streb, “religion is so important in these races.”

And the nation’s 60 million Catholics account for the largest up-for-grabs voting bloc.

“In recent decades … Catholics have become less reliably Democratic in both their party identification and their vote choice,” according to a December 2000 report of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. “Contrary to what many analysts have predicted, however, they have yet to realign with the Republican Party. Instead, Catholics have maintained a moderately high level of allegiance to the Democratic Party and have repeatedly defied conventional partisan and ideological categories and expectations. The tendency of Catholics to be both divided and distinctive in their political preferences and their willingness to cross traditional partisan and ideological lines continues to confound political analysts and makes the ‘Catholic vote’ an elusive prize.”

It’s relatively simple, says Streb: “On cultural issues Catholics tend to agree more with Republicans, while on economic issues they lean toward the Democrats.”

The Catholic vote is, in fact, many different votes. In California and Texas, for example, largely Democratic Latinos make up the fastest growing segment of this constituency. In Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio it is urban ethnics -- and their less Democratically inclined white suburban Catholic counterparts -- who can swing a race.

At the presidential level, Catholics typically favor the winner -- the first George Bush in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Al Gore won a slim majority of the Catholic vote in 2000.

At the congressional level, Catholics made the crucial difference in the 1994 election, when for the only time before or since they supported Republican candidates over Democrats (by a margin of 53-47), leading to Republican control of the House of Representatives for the first time in a generation. A recently released Gallup poll shows that 62 percent of Catholics are inclined to vote Democratic in this year’s congressional races, while 38 percent favor Republicans.

The Minnesota and Missouri senatorial races -- Democratic control of the Senate could hinge on either of these hotly contested races -- demonstrate just how significant the Catholic vote could be this year.

In Minnesota, says Politics in Minnesota newsletter editor and Republican activist Sarah Janecek, the “Catholic vote” is code for “paper the churches with pro-life stuff.” That should be good news to Republican senatorial candidate Norm Coleman, a one-time Democrat who switched parties largely as a result of growing discomfort with the pro-abortion rights stance of the Democrat Farm Labor party.

An October Zogby poll shows the Democrat, incumbent Paul Wellstone, leading Coleman, but falling behind in the Catholic constituency. In his 1996 run for the Senate, Wellstone -- the Senate’s most left-leaning member -- garnered 56 percent of the state’s Catholics; today, he’s getting just 44 percent of the Catholic vote.

Likewise, in Missouri, recent polls show incumbent Carnahan losing ground to Republican Talent among all groups, not least among the state’s Catholics. Carnahan is getting just 42.9 percent of the Catholic vote to Talent’s 47.8 percent, according to a mid-October Zogby poll.

“Assuming the poll numbers are correct,” said St. Louis University’s Kenneth Warren, “the Catholic voters seem to have abandoned Jean Carnahan and have gone over to Jim Talent.” He pointed out that Al Gore lost the state to George Bush in 2000, but still carried a majority of the Catholic vote.

Meanwhile, the gubernatorial campaigns in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois -- each of which will likely be won by Democrats -- present a prettier picture for Democrats, according to University of Akron political scientist John Green, author of The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy. “These states have been governed by Republicans for some time now, but there is some interest in more active government on social welfare issues, particularly education, and Catholics may be in the forefront of that.”

If that trend holds up -- if Democrats in large industrial states win with the overwhelming support of white Catholics -- that is good news for the Democratic Party nationally, said Green. Just as George W. Bush hopped from Austin, Texas, to Washington and Bill Clinton transitioned from Little Rock, Ark., to Pennsylvania Avenue, a state house is often the best route to the White House.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002