WASHINGTON — After sweeping victories for pro-life candidates nationwide last fall, political consultants expect Republicans to court practicing Catholics and pro-life evangelicals — so-called “values voters” — during the 2016 presidential race. Instead of cowering from pro-life convictions, they expect conservatives will flaunt them.
“The Republican Party has an embarrassment of riches with candidates for the 2016 nomination, and all are saying the right things when it comes to life, social justice and all things that seem to be important issues for the hard Catholic vote,” said Patrick Davis, a Catholic and political affairs assistant in the George H.W. Bush White House and former political director of the Republican Senatorial Committee.
Though mainstream media often characterize the pro-life platform as a Republican albatross, conservative consultants believe it could pave the way for Republicans to capture the White House.
Davis, who consults for political campaigns throughout the country, lives in Colorado, where pro-life Cory Gardner became the first challenger to defeat an incumbent senator in 36 years. Gardner defeated then-Sen. Mark Udall, born into a political dynasty, who campaigned almost entirely on a platform of support for abortion and federal funding of abortion and contraception.
The Gardner upset highlighted a litany of pro-life victories that stunned the pro-abortion political establishment throughout the country.
In Texas, Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis focused her gubernatorial campaign on abortion rights and lost by 20 points to pro-life Republican Greg Abbott. Her Senate seat was taken by pro-life Republican Konni Lyn Burton. Like Gardner, Abbott defied expectations with unanticipated levels of support from women and Latinos.
“Hispanics hold a more conservative view of abortion than the general public,” explained a 2012 report on “Politics, Values and Religion” by the Pew Research Center.
Voters elected pro-life Harvard graduate Elsie Stefanik in New York’s Second Congressional District. Utah elected U.S. Rep. Mia Love, the pro-life former mayor of Saratoga Springs in the Beehive State, as the first black Republican female member of Congress. Pro-life candidates won major victories, mostly upsets, in Montana, West Virginia, South Dakota, Arkansas, Kansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Alaska and more.
‘Catholic Vote Will Be Important’
“We saw something in 2014 that will play out again in 2016. The Catholic vote will be important for any Republican candidate seeking the White House,” said political consultant Dick Wadhams, who engineered the 2004 upset victory of South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune over then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.
Wadhams, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and an associate of Republican strategist Karl Rove, said 2014 victories highlighted the importance of appealing to Hispanics on social issues.
“Democrats went too far in their support of unrestricted abortion,” Wadhams said. “They thought they would get a pass from Catholic, evangelical and Hispanic Democrats who disagreed with them on that issue. But that was not the case, and we saw that throughout the country. Socially conservative Democrats will cross over and vote Republican when Democrats focus too heavily on abortion.”
According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, Catholics voted for the eventual winner in three of the last four presidential elections: 52%-47% (2004), 54%-45% (2008) and 50%-48% (2012). In 2000, more Catholics voted for Al Gore (50%) than George W. Bush (47%).
Wadhams said pro-abortion politicians in state legislatures and Congress have shown no signs of backing down as a result of defeats in 2014. He said they continue objecting to reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions, fetal-homicide laws that protect unborn children from violent crimes and laws that require medical care for babies who survive abortions.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is the only Catholic who has formally announced his candidacy for the White House. His political ally, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is a Catholic convert expected to announce soon.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is an evangelical Hispanic also expected to appeal to pro-lifers. Other likely potential contenders for the GOP nomination include: Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (Catholic); Ohio Gov. John Kasich; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; famed retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham; former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (Catholic); former New York Gov. George Pataki (Catholic); former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (Catholic); Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; billionaire Donald Trump; Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder; former United Nations ambassador John Bolton; former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich; and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.
The only major candidate to have formally announced a candidacy for the Democratic nomination as of press time is former Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who is outspoken in her support for abortion, same-sex “marriage” and federal funding of abortion and contraception.
Others formally exploring the Democratic nomination, or who have expressed interest, include: Vice President Joe Biden (Catholic); Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; District of Columbia shadow Sen. Paul Strauss; former Vice President Al Gore; Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy (Catholic); Delaware Gov. Jack Markell; Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy; former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (Catholic); Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (Catholic); Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee; and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb.
Campaigning Against Clinton
Regardless of who else may run, consultants said Republicans should position themselves against Clinton. Barring a miracle, they believe she will get her party’s nomination.
“Republicans have to use every method possible to combat the Hillary [Clinton] machine, and that includes appealing to practicing Catholics, evangelicals and pro-life Democrats,” said Jill Vujovich-Laabs, a Minnesota-based political consultant and director of religious education at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in south St. Paul.
Vujovich-Laabs believes Rubio has the best opportunity to emerge as the favorite among Catholic, evangelical and Hispanic values voters, though she believes Bush will also have strong appeal.
“Whoever it is, this country is hungry for someone to stand up and be a modern Joan of Arc or St. George — someone who will slay the dragon,” she said. “People are sick and tired of political capitulation. People who get the most respect and support are those who hold their ground.”
Though Vujovich-Laabs believes an anti-abortion platform may help a Republican win, she said Catholics and other values voters are also interested in candidates’ positions on social justice. She said they should look to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, focusing on solutions to hunger, illness, homelessness, illiteracy, sin, spiritual doubt and forgiveness.
“John F. Kennedy was a Catholic president who had a way of getting even Republicans to laugh with him and support him,” she explained. “Republicans need to show compassion for the poor. They need to project lots of outreach.”
On immigration, she said, Republicans need to provide solutions based in justice and law.
“I don’t know any good person who wants to separate a baby from parents who are here illegally,” Vujovich-Laabs said.
Though pro-life politics may help Republicans, consultants don’t believe they can win by promoting Christian teachings against same-sex “marriage.”
“It’s already a moot point,” Vujovich-Laabs said. “We are outnumbered. The other side has conducted such a tremendously successful campaign on this issue that anyone who even espouses another idea is seen as a neo-Nazi. Oppose same-sex ‘marriage,’ and you are labeled the same as a racist. Abortion is a much different issue and cannot be used against us in the same way. It involves an innocent child, and people are understanding that now.”
However, Patrick Davis said Republican candidates should be able to capitalize on the call by Pope Francis for an emphasis on social justice.
“Republican candidates should talk about the bedrock issues of the Republican Party, including fairness and equality,” Davis said. “Theirs is the party that abolished slavery and has always stood for equal opportunity for all people. It’s the party that offers a hand up, not a hand out, so the poor can thrive without government intervention in their lives. It’s easier to sell a hand out than a hand up, but prosperity is also a pretty attractive message.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.