Why Blue-Collar Catholics Won’t Vote Republican

Florida might not be synonymous with hand counts and butterfly ballots if Catholics in Pennsylvania had preferred George W. Bush to Al Gore in Election 2000. If Bush had won the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania, he would have carried that key swing state, garnering almost enough (just two short) Republican electoral votes to win the White House without Florida.

Bush’s undeniably strong pro-life credentials, along with his generally more traditional views on other moral issues, should have endeared him to Pennsylvania Catholics, a predominantly blue-collar group. Catholics in Pennsylvania, however, went 53 percent for Gore and only 46 percent for Bush, rallying around a Democratic candidate whose absolutist pro-choice stand was diametrically opposed to the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Catholics in other swing states that Bush hoped to carry voted similarly, nearly throwing the electoral college to Gore.

Catholics as a whole have begun to mirror the general population’s voting habits, but blue-collar Catholics like the ones who predominate in Pennsylvania continue to side disproportionately with the Democratic Party, in spite of its support for abortion and gay rights. Herein lies the paradox of the blue-collar Catholic voter. Understand him or her, and you increase your chances of becoming president.

The Republican National Committee (RNC), well aware of this trend, has recently set up an outreach to this traditionally Democratic segment of the population. It is the first time the RNC has attempted to recruit Catholics outside an election cycle, and it represents a change from a reactive to a proactive posture with regard to the Catholic voter.

Many political scientists regard Catholics as a critical swing group. In a tight election, they say, Catholics can determine the outcome. Before Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, Catholics traditionally favored Democrats in national elections. But they swung to the socially conservative Republican Reagan twice, the second time helping him retain the White House in 1984. By 1992, however, Catholics were returning to their Democratic Party roots, supporting Bill Clinton, a doughty champion of abortion and gay rights.

Clinton won 44 percent of the Catholic vote in 1992, as compared with only 34 percent of Protestants that year. In 1996, 53 percent of Catholics supported Clinton, while only 35 percent of Protestants did so. Clinton locked up eight of the nine states with the largest Catholic populations in 1992 and 1996: California, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, while only Texas remained in the Republican column. Gore managed to keep six of these nine states in the Democratic column, while losing Texas, Ohio, and Florida to Bush. Gore’s victories in these states with large Catholic populations came directly from the urban and industrial areas of these states, where blue-collar Catholics typically form a larger portion of the total population.

Microcosm of Catholicism

When it comes to the Catholic vote, Pennsylvania is a microcosm of the nation, the perfect place to pose the question: Why do Catholics vote the way they do? Catholics are the largest single religious group in Pennsylvania, comprising about a third of the population. There are ten Catholic dioceses in the state: eight are Latin-rite, and two are Byzantine-rite. Most Catholics in Pennsylvania are Democrats. Their clout is felt in Erie in the northwest, Pittsburgh in the southwest, the economically depressed Rust Belt, Scranton in the northeast, and Philadelphia in the southeast. All these places send a large number of Democrats to the state legislature. By contrast, parts of the state with a larger Protestant population such as Lancaster County in the southeast, and even outlying areas of Democrat-controlled Erie County, tend to elect Republicans to state offices.

One reason is simply a long-standing image problem Republicans face: Many blue-collar Catholics view the Republican Party as the party of the rich. Consequently, they vote with the Democrats because they view the Democratic Party as the protector of the poor and powerless. “Catholics,” Rev. Nicholas DeProspero, pastor of St. John the Baptist, a Byzantine-rite church in Pottstown, explains, “vote for Democrats because their parents and grandparents were Democrats. Democrats are seen as being for the poor and workers, and the Republicans favor the rich.

“Labor issues and money trump everything else,” the priest continues. “The Democrats have been extremely adept in waging class warfare and exciting jealousy of the rich. Moral issues [such as abortion] are not strong enough to break down old stereotypes. They think the Democrats will take care of you, and they think that government is the answer. The Democrats hand out things to win votes. They say, ‘I’ll give you this if you vote for me.”

Democratic strategists have done a good job of exploiting class antipathy, while the Republican Party all too often has failed to make the case that it is now more the party of the people than the Democrats. “The Republicans only care about the rich. They don’t want anybody but the rich to get anything,” says a parishioner at the Latin-rite St. Thomas More Church in North Coventry, Pennsylvania. He is a retired member of the Teamsters Union.

“I voted for Al Gore because the economy is good, and we are not at war,” says a member of the Latin-rite St. Agnes Church in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Another retired union member, he adds that a woman has a “constitutional right” to an abortion and “should only answer to God.”

Many working-class Catholics equate Republican-supported right-to-work laws, which weaken unions, with the loss of their jobs. In explaining his support for the Democrats, one Pennsylvania union man says, “When Reagan was president, all our jobs went out of the country.” Other Catholics remember the implosion of American manufacturing during the 1970s and 1980s and regard it as a result of Republican policies.

The Democratic Safety Net

Blue-collar Catholics often say that they are closer to the Democratic Party positions on issues relating to assistance for the poor, health care, and a government safety net. The U.S. hierarchy itself sometimes seems to encourage this very position. In 1999, the bishops issued an influential document titled Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium. In it, Catholics were called on to consider a candidate’s stance on abortion. Issues such as wages, assistance for the poor, and affordable health care, however, seemed to be of equal weight. Critics of the bishops’ document have insisted that it did not adequately focus on the abortion issue, instead making abortion only one of many issues for Catholic voters to consider. Thus, bishops have, in many cases, set an overall tone closer to that of the Democratic Party than to that of the GOP by favoring such things as opposition to the death penalty, labor unions, rights for the sick and the dying, and opposition to the U.S. military buildup of the 1980s.

Many lay Catholics can’t help but see the bishops forging an agenda that creates a natural alignment with left-of-center Democrats. As Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., a former political scientist at Georgetown University and editor of America, the Jesuit magazine, noted in a 1995 National Public Radio forum, “The Republicans, with their position on abortion and their position on aid to religiously affiliated schools, are very attractive. On the other hand, when you look at issues like welfare reform, the earned-income tax credit, all sorts of programs that are aimed at helping poor people, the bishops and the Democratic Party are much closer together. In fact, the bishops are much more liberal than the Democratic politicians are today.”

Paul Weber, a political scientist at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, wrote an article last year in America, saying, “A solid majority of Catholics are economic liberals, pro-safety net, pro-progressive taxation, pro-labor unions, pro-foreign aid, pro-environmental protection, and pro- government regulation of industry and consumer products—all traditional Democratic themes?’

What this boils down to is that the Catholic voter often faces a special dilemma in the voting booth. A recent expression of this sometimes painful dichotomy came from an Ohio Catholic: “I am one of the Catholics who voted for Gore for president, and I believe that the right-to-life issue is the most important issue we face in our society today,” Jack Keane wrote to the diocesan newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio. He added, “I believe letting a child die from hunger is a terrible thing. I believe letting our aged die alone, neglected, and in poverty is a terrible thing. As a whole, I consider the Democratic Party to be more in tune with the social-justice issues that our bishops have asked us to take into consideration when making our political decisions.”

Pro-Choice Republicans

But the bishops aren’t the only leaders whose positions confuse voters. The presence of vocal pro-choice Republicans has led some Catholic Democrats to conclude that there aren’t any real differences between the two parties on the abortion issue. Indeed, Pennsylvania is home to a number of highly visible pro-choice Republicans, including Senator Arlen Specter and Governor Tom Ridge, who is a Catholic. Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, banned Ridge from speaking on Church property because of his pro- choice views. In the Bush cabinet, Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and now Environmental Protection Agency secretary, is another prominent pro- choice Republican. Many Catholics look at it this way: The Democratic Party favors abortion, while I do not; but though the Republican Party officially opposes abortion, its members speak with a divided mind on the issue.

Some say that the Catholic voter is no different from others on the issue of abortion. While this may be the case for lapsed Catholics, Mass-going Catholics are likely to accept the Church’s teaching. The truth is that people want clear leadership, not mixed signals. Like the bishops, the Republican Party in Pennsylvania often sends a confused message. Republicans in the state, and in the rest of the Northeast for that matter, don’t speak with a single voice on abortion. “There is a battle for the soul of the party right now over the issue of abortion,” says Julia McDonald, a Chester County GOP committee member who is pro-life. She says that pro-choicers constitute the majority of the Chester County Republican Committee.

This doesn’t mean that pro-life forces aren’t powerful. The 1990 gubernatorial election was a case in point of the Pennsylvania GOP’s equivocal position on abortion’s possibly costing the party the election. A staunchly pro-choice Republican, Barbara Hafer, the state’s auditor general, ran against the late Robert Casey, a steadfastly pro-life Democrat. Abortion was a hot issue in the 1990 campaign. Hafer’s support for abortion was likely the key factor in Casey’s landslide victory, the largest in the history of the state.

A small third party in Pennsylvania, the Constitutional Party, is composed largely of former Republicans who can’t stomach what they regard as the GOP’s wishy-washy attitude toward abortion. The Constitutional Party’s founder is Peg Luksik, a pro-life Catholic and erstwhile Republican. She has run three times for governor, winning a surprising 14 percent of the total vote in 1994. This is a strong showing for a small, relatively new party. “We need the Constitutional Party because the Republicans are not conservative enough, and the Republican Party is not strong enough on the abortion issue,” says John McLaughlin, a Catholic member of the new party. “The Constitutional Party has a strong Catholic leadership, and I think that it wants what is good for America. You just have to vote on your conscience.”

The ‘Caseycrat’ Difference

As the relative success of the fledgling Constitutional Party shows, a pro-life stance can win votes. The career of Robert Casey is probably the best evidence that opposing abortion, when combined with attractive stands on other issues, is a big draw for the Catholic voter. Casey was an old-fashioned Democrat and the epitome of the Catholic pro-lifer who championed the right to life from conception to old age. Casey always showed courage defending his faith against his party’s leadership, standing as a vocal critic of the pro-choice hierarchy of the Democratic Party. Ultimately, Casey’s opposition to abortion made him a pariah among the most radical Democrats. He was banned from speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York. He continued to insist until his death last year that only the pro-life stance reflected the Democratic Party’s traditional commitment to the weak and the powerless.

When arguing before his party’s platform committee that he had a right to speak at the convention, Casey said, “Our party has always been the voice of the powerless and the voiceless. They have been our natural constituency. Let us add to this list the most powerless and voiceless member of the human family: the unborn child. We have an obligation to protect and promote the health and well-being of all mothers.”

While Casey strongly opposed abortion, he clung to traditional Democratic positions such as support for unions, expanded aid to poor women and children, an increase in funding for welfare programs, and state- supported health care. He pushed through the largest tax increase in Pennsylvania history to support his social programs. Casey made his Catholic faith the centerpiece of his political career, and like the Catholic hierarchy, he took staunchly conservative stances on abortion and other moral issues and very liberal stances on socioeconomic issues.

Casey represented values that many Pennsylvania Catholics still cherish. “Caseycrats” aren’t comfortable with the Democratic Party that emerged during the 1960s as the party of alternative lifestyles and what Pope John Paul II has branded the “culture of death.” While Caseycrats have an aversion to gay rights, pornography, and abortion, they still have high regard for the New Deal and don’t trust the Republican emphasis on limited government. Like many other churchgoing Catholics, Caseycrats worry that Republicans are too materialistic, too fascinated with economic policy.

Wooing the Blue Collars

All of this suggests that if the Republican Party is to attract more Catholics, it will have to do two things: convince them that it’s serious about the rights of the unborn and show them that the GOP is better for ordinary folks than the Democratic Party. Bush has admittedly gone a long way toward addressing some of these concerns. The president believes that the way to attract Catholics into the GOP is by focusing on issues such as education, taxes, Social Security, and Medicare, in addition to abortion. The Bush administration knows that it’s going to have to change the way people think. For example, Democrats have long stood for higher taxes to support social programs. Bush believes that the burden of heavy taxation ultimately harms working Americans, preventing families from purchasing many of life’s necessities.

To win over blue-collar Catholics, the Republicans are going to have to show that many of the programs beloved of Democrats are actually harmful to the poor. Marvin Olasky, whose work has influenced Bush’s brand of compassionate conservatism, has been trying to help Republicans frame the issues in a new way. Olasky argued in his seminal 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, that the welfare state has had a devastating effect on the poor. Olasky’s thesis is that the impersonal welfare bureaucracy has eroded values and the values-oriented concept that was once beneficial to the poor and vulnerable members of society.

“We want to put more money in the pockets of union households so they can take care of their families,” says Ana Gamonal, a co-coordinator of the RNC’s national outreach to Catholics. She adds that the Bush administration wants to increase the earned-income tax credit from $500 to $1,000, which would benefit families. “The Republican Party places heavy emphasis upon school-choice initiatives and testing as a way to help people who want to remove their children from failing public schools,” Gamonal says.

Loyalty to unions has kept many Catholics in the Democratic Party. But are the unions still loyal to their members? “The unions no longer exist for the protection of workers,” Gamonal insists. “They exist now solely as a fund-raising machine for the Democratic Party. They exist to promote a left-wing agenda that has nothing to do with protecting their workers. We will be working with pro-labor Republican officials in the Northeast to organize union members.”

Furthermore, says Gamonal, the RNC has committed itself to the pro-life cause in keeping with the party platform and Bush’s own pro-life beliefs. “There is no question of which party is the pro-life party,” she says. The RNC points to Bush’s suspension of federal funding for International Planned Parenthood as a visible example of the Bush administration’s support for the pro-life cause. The RNC does not take a position on the pro-choice stances taken by individual Republicans, saying only that their views do not represent those of the party on the national level. “We cannot do anything about where individuals stand on the pro-life issue, but the Republican Party is unquestionably pro-life on the federal level,” Gamonal says.

Will this be enough to win the king-making Catholic vote in heavily Catholic blue-collar swing states such as Pennsylvania in the future? Only the results of the 2004 election will answer that question.


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