WASHINGTON — Republicans were bludgeoned in the midterm elections Nov. 7 as Catholic voters abandoned them in the midst of a bloody Iraq occupation and scandals in Congress.

Democrats took control of both the U.S. House and Senate, as pro-lifers lost some ground in both chambers.

Catholics overwhelmingly chose Democratic congressional candidates, according to exit polls. Nationally, Catholics made up 26% of the vote and chose Democrats over Republicans by 55% to 44%. In 2004, Republican congressional candidates had managed to win 50% of the Catholic vote, to 49% for the Democrats.

Although Republicans lost badly, pro-life losses were only moderate in the House of Representatives. The losses were more serious in the Senate, but life issues did not appear to have hurt any of the Senate candidates significantly.

“I don’t think this election is a sign that the country has shifted on the life issues,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan, a pro-life leader in Congress and a reported hopeful for the 2008 presidential election. “I think we continue to gain ground in support for pro-life issues on the national level.”

Meanwhile, ballot measures in Missouri and South Dakota dealt setbacks to the pro-life movement, as Missourians narrowly enshrined a right to clone human beings for medical research in their state constitution. Also, South Dakotans rejected a wide-ranging abortion ban that had been passed by their state Legislature (see related story, this page).

On the House side, Republicans lost 29 or 30 members, pending recounts and challenges, but about 12 of them were pro-abortion moderates.

Republicans lost 18 members with mostly or all pro-life voting records, but it does not appear that many — if any — lost because they were pro-life. Among the pro-life losers, seven were involved in congressional or personal scandals. Four were connected to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, one allegedly choked his wife, another allegedly choked his mistress, and another allegedly used his influence to enrich his family.

Of the others, three of the Republicans were replaced by Democrats who appear to be genuinely pro-life — Joe Donnelly and Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, and former pro football player Heath Shuler of North Carolina.

“It fills us with hope that the Democratic Party is embracing social-conservative Democrats warmly,” said Joe Cella, president of the Catholic political activist group Fidelis. “We’re going to reach out to those Democratic conservatives who have won and develop relationships with them.”

“I think those are people who could definitely be approachable on traditional values issues,” said Mike Bober, executive director of the House Conservatives Fund, which raises money for pro-life, conservative Republican candidates.

Still to Come

Although Republicans failed to pick up any Democratic seats, pro-lifers made two gains. One pro-abortion Democrat — Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, who was elected governor of Ohio — was replaced by a pro-life Democrat, Rep. Charlie Wilson. One pro-abortion Republican, Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Mich, fell in his primary election to pro-lifer Tim Wahlberg, a Republican who won in the general election.

In all, the final tally results in a net loss of 13 pro-life members, although two of these supported funding for research that destroys human embryos.

Although the House cannot directly decide the abortion issue, its votes will immediately make a difference in some important abortion-related legislation.

One provision that must be renewed frequently is the “conscience protection” amendment, which withdraws federal money from medical institutions that discriminate against doctors and other medical professionals who refuse to participate in abortions. The provision has not received a floor vote since 2002, when it received the votes of 16 of the Democrats (and was opposed by only seven of the Republicans) who will be present in the 110th Congress.

If the four new pro-life Democrats support it, the amendment could come very close to passage on the House floor.

House Republicans who opposed this year’s constitutional amendment to preserve the traditional definition of marriage did not find refuge in appeasing the homosexual lobby. Of the 27 who opposed the amendment, eight were defeated at the polls. Two others retired.

Of the 51 Republican congressmen who earlier this year supported overturning President Bush’s veto of funding research that destroys human embryos, eight were defeated and two retired.

The Senate

Republicans lost six Senate seats, for what may be a net pro-life loss of four or five. The 110th Senate will include 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans, putting Democrats in chairmanship position of all committees and making it tough for any pro-life judicial nominees.

At the top of the ticket in Pennsylvania, Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican and a leader in the pro-life movement, was crushed in his re-election bid by state Treasurer Bob Casey, who campaigned as a pro-life Democrat. Casey received an impressive 35% of the pro-life vote, and Santorum took in only 41% of the Catholic vote as he went down to defeat by 18 points.

Casey, the son of the late pro-life Gov. Bob Casey, is at least nominally pro-life, but his noncommittal stance on confirming pro-life judges during the campaign was unsettling to some pro-lifers. He has also opposed any measures preventing same-sex marriage.

Also among the Republican Senate losers was the staunchly pro-abortion Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I.

Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who also lost, voted pro-life.

In the Senate, the loss of four or five reliably pro-life votes, and a strong pro-life leader, could create complications if President Bush attempts to propose a Supreme Court nominee who could conceivably participate someday in a decision that overturns Roe v. Wade. But such a confirmation is not outside the realm of possibility.

“Clarence Thomas was confirmed with 43 Republicans in the Senate,” said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, an activist group that seeks to confirm President Bush’s judicial nominees. “Republicans should remember their relative strength if [a Supreme Court nomination] comes up.”

In Missouri, the Senate race between losing pro-life Sen. Jim Talent, a Republican, and the successful pro-abortion challenger, Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, had in its background a ballot measure — Amendment 2 — which prevents the state Legislature from banning or restricting human cloning to produce embryonic stem cells. The initiative had been written very deceptively, and the state courts allowed it to appear with misleading ballot language that suggested that the measure was actually a cloning ban. Actor Michael J. Fox appeared in television ads for McCaskill related to the issue.

Despite the alleged popularity of embryonic stem-cell research, a vigorous but under-funded and last-minute campaign by the state’s Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders resulted in the measure’s passage by just over a 1% margin. Talent opposed Amendment 2, but he mishandled the stem-cell issue earlier this year when he withdrew support from a ban on human cloning pending in the U.S. Senate and embraced controversial and untested alternative procedures for producing embryonic stem cells. Most voters were confused, but pro-lifers knowledgeable of the issue were upset.

Notably, the “no” vote on Amendment 2 outperformed Talent by more than 25,000 votes and came much closer to winning than he did. This is a clear sign that its presence on the ballot did not harm him, and may have even prevented him from losing by a wider margin. Talent received 51% of the Catholic vote, and he was the only one of the six losing Republicans to receive a higher percentage of the Catholic vote than President Bush did in 2004. This was probably because of the campaign against Amendment 2: Thanks largely to the efforts of the state’s four bishops, 55% of Catholics voted against Amendment 2.

“It’s a very disappointing outcome,” Cella said of the passage of Amendment 2. “It will embolden people to propose similar propositions in 2008, in the presidential year, that will win. I think this will be a powerful wedge issue.”

Still, Cella acknowledged that the close finish suggests that embryonic research is not as popular an issue as social liberals would like to think. “If there is some silver lining, we started late and were substantially outspent, and we still made it competitive.”

David Freddoso writes

from Washington, D.C.