National Catholic Reporter: Democrats' outreach seeks to woo U.S. Catholic voters
WASHINGTON (National Catholic Reporter) – In the not too distant past it would have been redundant for the Democratic National Committee to hire a “Catholic Outreach” coordinator. Those duties – negotiating with a powerful cardinal, lining up support from an influential union leader, getting out the big-city vote – were handled by party chairman whose names (Farley, Flynn, Hannegan, Boyle, McGrath, McKinney, Bailey, O’Brien) read like roll call at an Ancient Order of Hibernians meeting.
Today, however, the creation of such a job is considered not only pragmatically essential but symbolically important, a mea culpa of sorts for neglecting the white ethnics once core to the Democratic base.
A Catholic outreach director will be hired by the Democratic National Committee as early as this month, rounding out an inside-the-beltway religious organizing team at the party’s Capitol Hill headquarters that includes staffers devoted to promoting the party’s message to Muslims, African-American churches, mainline Protestants and Jews.
It’s the latest indication, say some observers, that Democrats have learned a key lesson of John Kerry’s failed 2004 presidential campaign. “I’m very encouraged that the Democratic Party seems more open and amendable to being inclusive and welcoming to pro-life Democrats like me,” said Raymond Flynn, former mayor of Boston and Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the Vatican. “They’ve been far more receptive this year than anytime I can recall.”
“The last cycle was a wake-up call,” said Leslie Brown, coordinator of the national committee’s “faith in action” effort. “When you lose [the Catholic vote] with a Catholic candidate then you’ve got to go back” and address the problem, she said.
Kerry lost the white Catholic vote to President Bush by 13 points, and by an even greater margin in the key swing state of Ohio, which is why Brown and her boss, committee chair Howard Dean, are not the only Democrats thinking about Catholics:
- Among 1,224 white Catholics surveyed Feb. 23-May 25 on their preferences for the House of Representatives, 48 percent favor Democrats, while 42 percent favor Republicans, according to Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner polling data. That’s a 14-point shift from 2004, when Republican candidates outpolled Democrats among white Catholics by an 8 percent margin. Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to control the House for the first time since 1994.
- Anxious to retake the closely divided Senate, pro-choice Democratic leaders, such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recruited Pennsylvania’s popular pro-life state treasurer, Robert Casey, to challenge two-term incumbent Rick Santorum. Casey leads Santorum 49-36 percent, with 12 percent undecided, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in early May.
- Party leaders put Virginia’s new Catholic governor, Timothy Kaine, out front in January. “Our faith and values teach us that there’s no higher calling than serving others,” Kaine said in his nationally televised response to the president’s State of the Union address. On the stump in his 2005 gubernatorial campaign Kaine spoke frequently of how his faith influenced his policy positions.
- Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives, both pro-life and pro-choice, issued a “Statement of Catholic Principles” Feb. 28. “We envision a world in which every child belongs to a loving family and agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion,” said the statement, signed by 55 House Democrats. “Each of us is committed to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term. We believe this includes promoting alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, and improving access to children’s health care and child-care, as well as policies that encourage paternal and maternal responsibility.”
The Catholic House Democrats were responding to prominent members of the American hierarchy who challenged the pro-choice Kerry’s Catholic credentials in 2004 and, at least by implication, their own standing as Catholics. “It was in response to a characterization of the Catholic members [of Congress] as basically sinners and nonbelievers, which is not true,” Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) told a May 10 forum hosted by the liberal Center for American Progress on “How Catholic Progressives View the Role of Faith in Governance.”
“If you’re a public official for any appreciable amount of time there will come a time when there will be public policy issues that will conflict... with a particular teaching of the Catholic Church,” said Gonzalez.
Mining for ‘values voters’
The evolving Democratic strategy to win the Catholic vote is based on two pillars: engage, and hopefully diffuse, the debate over abortion and other hot-button social issues while simultaneously broadening the discussion over “values” to include issues such as health care, education, the environment, wages, corporate greed, public corruption, and immigration.
Catholic Democrats are “very responsive to a broad initiative to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the number of abortions” even when offered by a pro-choice legislator, pollster Stanley Greenberg said in a March 2005 memo titled “Reclaiming the White Catholic ...
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