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Issue Date:  November 17, 2006

God gap narrows as Democrats take majority of Catholic vote


Republican hopes that socially conservative churchgoing Catholics would help forestall an electoral catastrophe in the 2006 midterm elections were not simply dashed. They were obliterated, a real thumping.

In 2004, George W. Bush -- with a carefully refined strategy targeting frequent churchgoers -- carried a majority of the Catholic vote against Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and nearly 60 percent of the vote from Catholics who attend Mass weekly. Combined with support from evangelicals and other social conservatives, Republican strategists hoped the so-called God gap would continue to work in their favor.

But this year, according to exit polls of House races, 55 percent of Catholics voted Democratic, while 46 percent of weekly churchgoers of all denominations supported House Democratic candidates. Catholics made up approximately one-quarter of the electorate.

“This represents a dramatic change,” said John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Even more telling, said Green, is that white Catholics -- considered the most swinging of swing voters -- gave a majority (50 percent) of their vote to Democratic candidates.

And while the war in Iraq dominated voter thinking, Catholics had other issues on their minds, according to analysts and activists who study religion’s impact on voting.

Among the top issues: congressional corruption and malfeasance (think Florida Rep. Mark Foley and convicted California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham), managerial incompetence (exemplified by the handling of Hurricane Katrina and the war), and increasing angst in the electorate focused on economic inequality. Add to the mix a new Democratic desire to engage religiously motivated voters and the result is the party’s first Capitol Hill majority in 12 years.

“If you look at both the individuals who were elected, both Republicans and Democrats, and the exit poll data and the various initiatives adopted around the country, you can safely say that this was an election more about issues of corruption and competence then about philosophy and ideology,” said Leonard Leo, cochair of the Republican National Committee’s Catholic Outreach effort. “People were disappointed that Republicans were not showing the kind of fidelity to values and morals and discipline that they came to expect,” he said.

“One would expect people of faith to be upset over political leaders who lack discipline and integrity and a sense of obligation to punish wrongdoing,” continued Leo. And the perception that “leaders of the Republican Party were getting fat and happy” didn’t help, he said.

In Ohio, where Republican Gov. Bob Taft pleaded guilty to corruption charges and former Rep. Bob Ney faces prison for his dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, corruption was a key contributor to Republican losses. “Catholics care more about right and wrong than right and left,” said Alexia Kelly, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. The group sponsored 10 voter forums in the Buckeye state and distributed more than 50,000 of its voter guides in Ohio parishes.

Traditional social issues like abortion did not play this year in Ohio, said Eric McFadden, the alliance’s Ohio field director. “I expected [Ohio Republican Sen. Mike] DeWine to roll out his credentials as a Catholic, and he certainly has good ones, but he never made it an issue,” said McFadden. DeWine lost to Democrat Sherrod Brown by more than 10 points, and lost the Catholic vote by 8 percentage points.

John McGreevy, a University of Notre Dame historian, said various state ballot measures provide insights into voter thinking.

Though passed in seven (Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin) of the eight states where they were on the ballot, antigay marriage constitutional amendments didn’t energize the Republican faithful like they did in 2004.

Instead, referendums in six states (Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Ohio and Colorado) to raise the minimum wage passed by large-to-overwhelming margins and appeared to contribute to Democratic victories in closely contested Senate races in Montana and Missouri. In South Dakota, voters rejected a measure that would have outlawed all abortions in the state except those necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman, while a hotly contested measure allowing for embryonic stem cell research passed in Missouri by a small margin, despite strong opposition from the state’s Catholic bishops.

Voters, said McGreevy, “were kind of cautious on stem cell research, not enthusiastic about gay marriage, and also cautious, not radical in the sense that they wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade immediately, on abortion.” A more narrowly crafted antiabortion measure is likely to have passed in South Dakota, said McGreevy.

Meanwhile, traditional bread-and-butter economic issues motivated voters.

“The fact that every single minimum wage measure passed, and not necessarily in states where you’d think that would happen, is striking,” said McGreevy. For “socially conservative Democrats,” he said, “it’s their day.”

Democrats get religion

It wasn’t pure happenstance or even discontent over the war and corruption that led Democrats to win the Catholic vote this year and increase, albeit by a small number, their share of the evangelical vote. While many Democrats argued that the 2004 “values voter” phenomenon was overblown, others -- including those in charge of recruiting candidates for this election cycle -- took the lessons to heart. The 30-plus newly elected House Democrats, for example, are decidedly more conservative than the longtime members who will chair committees when Congress convenes in January.

“We saw the Democratic Party react to the causes of the Republican Party victory in ’04,” said Joseph Cella, president of Fidelis, a conservative Catholic advocacy group. “They packaged their message and reached out to those voters.”

It was Pennsylvania’s Senate election, pitting Catholic incumbent Rick Santorum against Catholic Holy Cross graduate and one-time Jesuit Volunteer Corps member Bob Casey Jr., where the party put its new approach to its most high-profile test.

Casey -- economic populist, pro-life and pro-gun, son of a beloved former governor -- trounced Santorum, winning 59 percent of the vote. Casey took 59 percent of the Catholic vote, 58 percent of the white Catholic vote, and 52 percent of weekly churchgoers in his race against Santorum, a hero to conservative Catholics nationwide.

When it came to the Catholic vote, said the Republican National Committee’s Leo, “Bob Casey had three things going for him: He’s Catholic himself, he carried his father’s name, and he articulated a pro-life position. It muddied the waters.” Said Leo, “The Democrats took advantage of the opportunity, as any good political movement would.”

“The Casey campaign was predicated on that assumption, which turned out to be true, that when the social issues were not in the way a lot of Catholics and evangelicals would be open to the Democratic Party,” said Green of the Pew Forum.

“Pennsylvania is a culturally conservative state,” said George Marlin, a conservative activist and author of The American Catholic Voter. Many of those pro-lifers are registered Democrats who vote Republican when the Democrat is pro-choice, said Marlin. “People like that often look for a reason to come back to the party of their forebears, and Bob Casey Jr. gave them an opportunity to do that,” he said.

Does the Casey victory over an unpopular incumbent hold broader lessons for the Democratic Party?

“There have been Democrats arguing that the party needs to be more effective in its outreach to religious people,” said Green. “It’s not a new idea, but it did gain strength after 2004, when people had the sense that just a little bit of improvement would have put the Democrats over the top.”

The Casey race, and others like it around the country, “resolves that argument,” said Green. “I expect to see a lot more discussion of this and a lot more Democratic candidates who adopt this approach. The Democrats learned a lesson and they adjusted.”

The lesson is clear to Jeff Carr, chief operating officer of Sojourners, a liberal evangelical social justice organization. “Those who said the Democrats need to stay away from religion were wrong,” said Carr. The “big losers” in the 2006 election, he concluded, were “the secular left and the religious right.”

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

On the Web
Read Joe Feuerherd’s 2003 profile of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, which includes an in-depth Q & A, on

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2006

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