WASHINGTON — The Nov. 6 midterm elections appear likely to bring the U.S. House of Representatives — and possibly even the Senate — back under the control of the Democratic Party, affecting key issues for Catholics, ranging from abortion and judicial appointments to immigration reform.
“It’s going to be a critical midterm election, I think, for pro-lifers, in the sense that there is a very real possibility that the Democrats could take Congress, and Democrats are not pro-life by any stretch,” said Paul Kengor, a Catholic political scientist and author who teaches at Grove City College.
For pro-lifers, a top priority at the national level has been electing a president who will nominate justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade and a Senate that would confirm them.
Kengor said he doesn’t anticipate any more vacancies on the high court in the next two years. But that doesn’t mean the Supreme Court won’t be at stake in this election.
By mid-September, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh was endangered by an allegation of sexual abuse when he was 17, which could delay a vote for his confirmation until after the midterm elections, according to Daniel Burns, a Catholic political scientist at the University of Dallas.
“If the Democrats take the Senate before there has been a floor vote on Kavanaugh, in the current climate, I would not be surprised to see his nomination voted down on the floor in 2019. I think it could go either way,” Burns said.
A Democratic takeover of the House is viewed as likely by many observers. As of this writing, Democrats led Republicans in the generic ballot by 8.3 percentage points (48.8% to 40.5%), according to the Real Clear Politics average of national polls. By mid-September, the political forecasting site “FiveThirtyEight” gave Democrats a 4 in 5 chance of reclaiming the House.
According to Kengor, two bellwether races to watch on election night are both in Pennsylvania — a key battleground state that Donald Trump was the first GOP presidential candidate to win since 1988. Both of the House races feature a pro-life Catholic Republican facing off against a pro-abortion-rights Catholic Democrat.
In the 17th Congressional District in the Pittsburgh area, Republican Keith Rothfus and Democrat Conor Lamb are facing off. Both are incumbents and are now running for the same seat due to redistricting. It is an area that Trump won by 20 points, according to Kengor.
Another key race is between incumbent Republican Mike Kelly and Democrat Ron DiNicola in the 3nd District in northwestern Pennsylvania. If the Democrats in those two races are pulling ahead on election night, then, Kengor says, the tide will turn against the Republicans.
The Senate has long been viewed as likely to remain Republican. But the conventional wisdom is now being questioned after Republicans find themselves on the defensive in some unexpected places, including reliably red-state Texas, where Republican incumbent Ted Cruz is leading Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke by only a few points, according to Real Clear Politics.
“The Cruz race should not be as close as it is, because that’s a Republican state. I think Cruz will hold on to it, but it’s too close for comfort for a lot of people,” Kengor said.
In mid-September, Bloomberg reported that a Democratic majority in the Senate now seems “less daunting,” citing the Cruz race as an example of the potential turnaround. At press time, FiveThirtyEight.com assessed the odds of Democratic control at 1 in 3, up from 1 in 4 at the end of August.
Democrats also have a shot at seizing two seats currently occupied by Republicans who are retiring — Jeff Flake in Arizona and Bob Corker in Tennessee.
Even if a vote on Kavanaugh takes place before the election, pro-lifers should still be concerned about judicial appointments at the district and appellate court levels, according to Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee.
She noted that only a tiny fraction of federal cases ever make it to the Supreme Court. Many more work their way up to the appeals courts. “The circuit courts really are critical, in who’s making those decisions, because that is the final say in most cases,” Tobias said.
Appellate courts also play a role in steering cases to the Supreme Court, which takes an interest in cases in which one appeals court disagrees with another.
One potential conflict is over state bans on dismemberment abortions. In August, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the procedure, but the law has passed in eight other states. Tobias said National Right to Life is hoping that another court will uphold another state’s ban, propelling the issue to the Supreme Court.
National Right to Life has also been advocating for pro-life measures that the Republican-held House has passed over the last two years. Those include a ban on abortions on unborn infants that can feel pain, a measure that would make the Hyde Amendment prohibition on taxpayer funding of abortions permanent, and protections for infants born alive after an attempted abortion.
The bills have yet to pass the Senate, where pro-lifers do not yet have a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority. That means that the bills will need to pass the House again in order to go to the Senate after the midterms.
“If that changes and Nancy Pelosi becomes speaker again, none of that will pass,” Tobias said. “So pro-life legislation would just stop completely.”
But the fight for life also plays out in the many state elections in November, where voters across the country will be choosing their state representatives, state senators and, in 36 states, the governor.
“The thing pro-life people have been pushing for decades now on the federal level is just for the Supreme Court to return the issue to the states,” Burns said. “It doesn’t make sense if you only care about the Supreme Court nominee and then don’t also pay attention to your state elections.”
While a Democratic takeover of Congress would be detrimental to the pro-life cause, it could serve as a check on those immigration policies of President Trump that, in the judgment of many Catholic leaders, go against Church teaching on the dignity of the person, the primacy of the family and the value of welcoming the stranger.
“It would make a lot of difference, simply because they would have the oversight power to subpoena administration witnesses to explain some of these policies,” said Kevin Appleby, the senior director of the Scalabrini International Migration Network. “So the administration would be held more accountable for policies such as separating families at the border or the zero-tolerance policy. They would have to defend it in a public forum.” (“Zero tolerance” refers to the policy of prosecuting every illegal entry, regardless of the circumstances.)
The administration might also be challenged on the U.S. refugee program, which it has reduced in size, Appleby said.
Also, because Congress controls the purse strings, a Democratic House would have a say over funding for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Trump’s sought-after wall on the southern U.S. border.
“So there’s a lot at stake here,” Appleby said.
Democrats might also work out a more favorable solution to the beneficiaries of “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival” (DACA). The program benefits children — known as “Dreamers” — who were brought here illegally by their parents, according to Appleby.
If Republicans lose only one chamber, Burns said that might open the way for a compromise between Trump and Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform. Trump, he said, would be able to bring along “immigration hard-liners” who would not have accepted a proposal developed under President Barack Obama. But it also means that Democrats will have to give Trump something he wants, such as his border wall, Burns said.
Appleby, on the other hand, remains pessimistic that a compromise on immigration reform is possible in the near future — particularly if the GOP holds the House — since both parties are going to opposite extremes on the issue.
“I just think it will be a stalemate until another administration comes in,” Appleby said.
Other Issues at Stake
Another potential issue that could hinge on the outcome of the midterm elections is religious freedom, according to Kengor.
Over the past decade, faithful Catholics and other Christians have found their right to fully live out their beliefs under threat, particularly due to the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate and the legalization of same-sex “marriage.” A Democratic-run Congress would be as hostile to religious liberty as it would be to the pro-life cause, Kengor said.
Burns, on the other hand, is confident that Trump would be able to stop any anti-religious-freedom measures generated by a Democratic Congress. Only if Democrats control both Congress and the White House would religious freedom be endangered, added Burns.
He said Catholics should always remember to bring their faith to bear on all the issues that their fellow Americans are concerned with in this, or any, election.
“When we bring our faith to bear on politics, we don’t just do it on the ‘faith issues,’” Burns said. “Of course, we care about abortion and religious freedom and immigration and these Catholic-related issues, but we should also be bringing our faith to bear on economic policy, on trade policy, on foreign policy, on everything. Our faith is not compartmentalized.”
Stephen Beale writes from
Providence, Rhode Island.