Is there a Catholic angle on next week’s midterm elections? There has not been as much focus on the role of religion in this election cycle as there has been in recent years. Still, the issues the candidates have chosen to run on is interesting and points to what might, repeat might, be a positive long-term development not just for Catholic concerns but for a diminishment of ideological extremism in both parties.
Remember when Democrats in Texas thought Wendy Davis was going to win that state’s governorship and turn the Lone Star State blue in the process? Better to say, remember when certain inside the DC Beltway Democrats and MSNBC anchors thought that? Davis came to national attention for her filibuster against a bill that limited access to abortion. That was her raison d’etre as a candidate. But, not a single solitary poll has her trailing by less than 10 percent and Republican Greg Abbott is almost certainly going be Texas’ next governor and Davis’s lackluster campaign is likely to drag down other Democratic candidates in the state as well.
I do not think you need an advanced degree in political science to have predicted this outcome in Texas. The reason the state has begun to turn a little purple around the edges is because of the growth in the Latino vote and Latinos are not culturally liberal. The way for Democrats to turn Texas purple is to nominate a pro-life candidate who is committed to economic policies that lift up the poor and the marginalized, in short, a Catholic candidate. It has long been the case that many Democrats who wish to appear moderate embrace neo-liberal economic policies and other big business efforts while a Republican who wishes to appear moderate tends to embrace the pro-choice agenda.
And, the past two election cycles, the Republicans have largely abandoned the culture war issues of same sex marriage and abortion rights and it is the Democrats who have embraced those same issues. Now, it is the Dems who fight the culture wars, not the Republicans, but there is little reason those issues will work any better for them. Most people who vote rate issues like same sex marriage and abortion rights pretty low on their agenda. Additionally, at least on abortion, there is the sense that even a GOP win will not actually achieve very much for the pro-life agenda. They may nibble at the edges, at best.
In Colorado, which unlike Texas is already a purple state, incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall also picked up the “war on women” theme. In fact, his race has been so dominated by ads about contraception, they call him “Sen. Uterus.” Lynn Bartels of the Denver Post wrote last month, “If Colorado’s U.S. Senate race were a movie, the set would be a gynecologist’s office, complete with an exam table and a set of stirrups.” Udall is now trailing in the polls. People know that contraception is not going away and only the activists at Planned Parenthood, and their counterparts at the Becket Fund and the USCCB, saw the Hobby Lobby case as the kind of thing that will directly impact them. Voters, including women voters, are more concerned about Ebola spreading than about losing access to contraception.
Georgia is, like Texas, a red state that could go purple in a generation. There, Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn has closed the gap in her race against Republican nominee David Perdue. The RealClearPolitics average of polls has Perdue leading by a mere 0.5%. Nunn’s campaign has not featured ads warning about the loss of contraception. She has run ads warning about the loss of jobs on account of outsourcing by companies like the one her opponent ran.
In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback, a four-star general in the culture wars for years, is behind in all the polls because of his zany “experiment” in voodoo economics. (News flash to those Republicans who think they can produce a Reaganesque economic turnaround by slashing taxes: Go back and look at the history of the early 1980s and find out what Paul Volcker did to turn the economy around.) The Democrat Paul Davis is not running as a champion of culture war issues but as a proponent of moderate, common sense, almost conservative governance.
The most popular surrogate for the Democrats this year has been Sen. Elizabeth Warren. There is no doubt where Warren stands on the cultural issues, but they are not the centerpiece of her stump speech. She rose to prominence not by filibustering an abortion bill but by taking on Wall Street and the politicians who facilitate policies that help Wall Street.
No one knows if Udall will eke out a win in Colorado or if Nunn will catch and surpass Perdue. Brownback may surprise. The races are very close. But, why is a woman running on a more populist economic agenda fairing so well in ruby-red Georgia while a moderate man running on contraception access is behind in Colorado? Why do Democrats even have a prayer in Kansas? These are questions the Democrats need to ask themselves as they get ready for a presidential nominating contest. Are they to become the party that focuses on issues that even most women do not rank very high on their list of issues they care about? Or are they going to embrace a populist economic agenda, one that could be very attractive to the growing Latino vote, that confronts the powerful forces at work in the economy, making life harder for most of us every day? Does a holistic Catholic vision have the potential to create a sane center in the electorate, capable of standing down the extremes in both parties?