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Issue Date:  October 20, 2006

Catholics a target in Pennsylvania Senate race

Hazleton and Scranton, Pa., and Washington

The invitation was both an honor and an opportunity: Would Pennsylvania State Treasurer Bob Casey agree to give the Sept. 15 Pope John XXIII Lecture at The Catholic University of America law school?

Would he ever!

That a Democrat, even a pro-life Catholic like Casey, would get a friendly platform at a Catholic university less than eight weeks before Election Day was an unexpected gift, an imprimatur of sorts, for the Pennsylvania state treasurer’s campaign to unseat the demonstrably Catholic incumbent, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. It’s exactly the sort of backdrop another Catholic Democrat, presidential candidate John Kerry, sought but never found in 2004.

“That’s something we certainly wanted to accept,” said a Casey strategist. “We knew we’d get a lot of good press around that event.” And they did. “Casey joins Democrats’ push for religious voters” was the headline in the next day’s Centre Daily Times, the State College, Pa., newspaper.

Santorum’s supporters understood the impact.

“Casey’s appearance at Catholic University is a brazen attempt to lend credibility to his campaign among Catholic and religious voters,” said Joseph Cella, president of the conservative Catholic group Fidelis.

“The race is one of the most hotly contested and important in the country ... and the votes of the Catholic community are likely to provide the margin of victory,” complained Catholic University law professor Robert Destro, head of the school’s Marriage Law Project, in a letter to the university’s president, Fr. David O’Connell. “The university is clearly taking sides and has no business doing this in one of the most important elections in the country.”

That both campaigns are sensitive to Catholic concerns is no surprise. The one-third-Catholic Pennsylvania electorate may well decide the balance in the U.S. Senate and the political future of the country’s most prominent and powerful Catholic lawmaker. (Santorum is the No. 3 ranking Republican in the Senate.)

And the candidates are serious Catholics, though of decidedly different types.

Santorum, a daily communicant and homeschooling father to his six children, led the Congressional effort to ban partial-birth abortion, supports a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage, and opposes embryonic stem cell research.

His controversial statements have made him a target of gay rights groups. In 2003 he told The Associated Press, “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.” Marriage is between a man and a woman, said Santorum. “It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

He pulls few punches. In his 2005 book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, Santorum argued that liberals have a view of the “common man” that “borders on disdain.” Liberals support “radical feminism’s misogynistic crusade to make working outside the home the only mark of social value and self-respect,” define liberty as “the freedom to do whatever you desire, as long as nobody gets hurt,” and support welfare policies that are “all about transferring income to individuals in such a way that their dependence on government is increased and their dependence on family decreased.”

This combative style has apparently not worn well with Pennsylvania voters. Though some polls show the race tightening, Santorum has yet to move beyond the low 40s in the percentage of voters who say they plan to vote for him. A lot of people, it seems, simply don’t like him.

He’s tried to turn this handicap into a benefit. Sitting on a living room sofa, a casually dressed Santorum looks into the camera with an aw-shucks demeanor in a recent 30-second ad. “Bob Casey says I bicker and fight too much,” says Santorum. “Well, when I see Pennsylvania not getting our fair share of highway funds, I’m gonna fight. When the Pentagon tries to shut down key Pennsylvania military bases, I’m gonna fight. And when the Senate tries to pass an immigration bill that rewards illegal behavior, I’m really gonna fight. If you want a senator who goes along just to get along, Bob Casey’s probably your guy, but if you’re looking for someone to fight for Pennsylvania, you can count on me.”

The soft-spoken Casey, by contrast, is running as a uniter not a divider. “The family of America must leave no one out and must leave no one behind,” he told hundreds of hometown supporters gathered Oct. 7 at a Scranton ice-skating rink. “Too often over the past five years Washington has left a lot of people behind and often has left part of our family behind. We’re not going to tolerate that anymore.”

Casey, 46, attended Catholic grammar school and was then educated by Jesuits, first at Scranton Prep high school and then Holy Cross College. He served a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, teaching in an inner-city school, before pursuing his law degree at Catholic University. His father, the late Bob Casey Sr., served three terms as Pennsylvania’s governor, and is remembered most for bucking the Democratic Party on abortion, though he strongly backed child care, health care and other traditional Democratic initiatives at the state level.

“If we are going to be pro-life, we cannot say we are against abortion of unborn children and then let our children suffer in degraded inner-city schools and broken homes,” Casey told the Catholic University audience. He continued: “We can’t claim to be pro-life at the same time as we are cutting support for Medicaid, Head Start, and the Women, Infants, and Children’s program. I believe we need policies that provide maximum feasible legal protection for the unborn and maximum feasible care and support for pregnant women, mothers and children. The right to life must mean the right to a life with dignity.”

It’s a theme that hits home with Josephine and Tom Comeda, Scrantonians who attended the Oct. 7 Casey rally. “He cares about the babies after they are born, not only when they are being born,” said Josephine Comeda. “These people who run the Republican Party, all they care about is one issue and they don’t care about the kids once they are on this earth.”

“We’re good Catholics, but we’re not one-dimensional,” said her husband, Tom.

Casey was recruited by national Democrats to take on Santorum largely because of his antiabortion stance, a strategy designed to attract wayward pro-life Democratic Catholics who have provided Santorum with small margins of victory in two previous Senate elections. Yet the abortion issue still resonates, especially among socially conservative Catholics.

Forty miles south of the Scranton ice rink, at St. John Bosco Parish, Patricia and Ronald Shenyo arrive 15 minutes before the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass. A cross dedicated to “the unborn” adorns the parking lot.

“Santorum’s a strong pro-life person and that’s an important issue,” said Patricia Shenyo, mother of three grown children and grandmother to a newborn. “If we get rid of abortion, we’ll have a lot more peace in the world.”

Jim Labuz, an engineer attending Mass with his teenage son, has similar views. “If Casey wanted to challenge a senator, he should have gone against [Republican Arlen] Specter when he had the chance [in 2004]. But he waited to knock-off a pro-life senator and that upsets me. We could have had two pro-life senators.”

“Faithful Catholics” like Labuz and the Shenyos are key to Santorum’s re-election efforts, said Leonard Leo, chairman of Catholic Outreach at the Republican National Committee. “Sen. Rick Santorum is the faithful Catholic community’s standard bearer and faithful Catholics will do whatever it takes to ensure that he remains a national and international Catholic leader,” Leo told NCR. Casey’s support for civil unions and his agreement with the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to allow the Plan B morning-after pill to be sold over the counter will hurt Casey with these voters, said Leo.

The Santorum campaign hierarchy includes a statewide chair devoted to getting the Catholic vote out for Santorum and county Catholic chairs in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 local jurisdictions. The campaign Web site ( will soon feature a “Catholic page,” highlighting Santorum’s record on issues of concern to “faithful Catholics.” The election, said Leo, is about re-electing “a very important national leader who has helped preserve the culture of life and instill in the Senate a sense of virtue and traditional values.”

Casey’s campaign, meanwhile, has not neglected Catholic voters. The Casey Web site ( features a section devoted to “the common good,” with a direct appeal to pro-life liberals. The candidate’s sister, Margi Casey, will soon tour the mother houses of women’s religious orders to spread the Casey message. A kitchen cabinet of influential Catholics in heavily Catholic western Pennsylvania is mounting an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort. “Parish social justice ministers have not forgotten Santorum’s support for the war from the outset, which conflicted directly with John Paul II’s position,” said Chris McNally, a leader in Catholic Democrats of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Democratic Committee in Western Pennsylvania’s heavily Republican Upper St. Clair township.

The candidates have had one debate, on “Meet the Press,” and will meet again before Election Day. The airwaves are full of advertisements, many of them negative, from both campaigns. But Casey’s ability to run under the radar -- he has few public events -- is clearly a source of frustration to the Santorum camp. “I see a guy who is standing on the sidelines allowing extreme liberal interest groups like the [pro-gay rights] Human Rights Campaign to do his work for him,” said Leo. “He’s not willing to talk about the issues in a credible, intelligent way.”

Casey’s elusiveness has created another problem for the incumbent. “Santorum is perceived as a negative, nasty guy, and the only thing he can do to make this race close is to attack Casey, but the problem with that is it reminds voters that they don’t like him because he’s negative, nasty and mean,” said McNally.

Meanwhile, Santorum is plagued by nagging non-ideological controversies, such as questions about his residency. His family lives almost exclusively in the Washington suburb of Leesburg, Va., though Santorum maintains a residence in Penn Hills, Pa. Some voters resent that Santorum’s homeschooled children participated in a Penn Hills-funded Internet-based education program. He said their participation was justified because he pays taxes in Penn Hills.

The Santorum camp, down anywhere from five to 13 points in recent polls, notes that the senator has won two Senate races where he was the underdog and that his first campaign for the House was an upset victory. Leo said it will come down to which candidate gets his voters to the polls and that Santorum has the advantage there. “We’ll have an unprecedented [number] of troops on the ground who care very deeply about Rick to get out the vote,” said Leo.

Meanwhile, at the Casey rally in Scranton, campaign workers were handing out lawn signs and bumper stickers and taking the names of people who pledged to hand out campaign literature or staff early evening phone banks.

Such efforts may yet determine what type of Catholic wins the Pennsylvania senate seat.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2006

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