As Goes Pennsylvania. . .?

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s May election results were pretty good for the pro-life movement. Turncoat Arlen Specter, a thirty-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, who as a Republican vociferously opposed Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court during the Reagan years, was rejected for a sixth term even though he had the support of President Obama, Governor Rendell, and the state’s Democratic political machine. In Western Pennsylvania, the 12th Congressional District’s special election to fill the vacancy created by the death of John Murtha was won by Mark Critz, a pro-life Democrat.

The Keystone State has interesting political demographics. It is about 40 percent Catholic and the home of the largest senior population after Florida. There are reliably leftist cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and their surrounding suburban counties. But next in electoral importance is central Pennsylvania’s rural NRA country, whose populace is leery of big government. And then there is the economically depressed western portion, whose citizens are older, Catholic, and socially conservative.

Because this once mighty industrial state – which was long known for steel manufacturing, coal mining, and oil drilling – has been economically stagnant in recent decades, many young people have left for the southern and western states of the nation to find jobs. As a result of this exodus, there are large population pockets of aging, poorer, practicing Catholics who are not bashful about voting their values and have used their power at the ballot box to decide elections.

Catholics made the difference in electing and re-electing Governor Robert P. Casey, a classic Al Smith Democrat, in 1986 and 1990. Readers may recall that Casey was denied a speaking role at the 1992 Democratic convention that nominated Bill Clinton and Al Gore because he was pro-life.

While Casey’s successor, Republican governor Tom Ridge, a pro-abortion Catholic, managed to win two terms, he did so without the support of a large portion of the Catholic voting population. Disgruntled Catholics cast their ballots for the third-party gubernatorial candidate, pro-lifer Peg Luksik, who received 13 percent of the vote in 1994 and 10 percent in 1998.

To take down two-term Republican Senator Rick Santorum in 2006, the Democrats wised up and nominated as his opponent a perceived pro-lifer, Robert P. Casey, Jr., son of the iconic governor. Since taking office, however, Casey has repeatedly betrayed the pro-life cause, has received a 65 percent NARAL-Pro-Choice America rating and voted with seemingly no qualms for Obamacare.

In 2008, Hilary Clinton won the Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary with 70 percent of the Catholic vote because she cleverly painted Obama as an out-of-touch elitist who could not relate to the concerns of blue-collar Catholics.

Senator Arlen Specter left the Republican Party last year because he expected to lose the 2010 GOP primary to Catholic pro-life opponent, former congressman Pat Toomey. The switch did not save his political career. Because he was perceived to be a desperate opportunist, Specter lost the Democratic primary to Congressman Joe Sestak, a retired three-star admiral and pro-abortion baptized Catholic. This fall’s face-off between Sestak and Toomey will with good reason be the most closely watched senate race in the nation.

The 12th Congressional Seat, held by the late John Murtha for thirty-five years, is located in the southwest corner of the state, heavily Catholic and one of Pennsylvania’s least-affluent areas. Despite the district’s poverty, cultural issues take precedence for its voters over economics ones. This explains why George Bush received 49 percent of the district’s vote in 2004 and McCain carried it in 2008.

The district’s Cambria County, for example, which has the lowest median income in the state ($30,000) and is 54 percent Catholic, voted Republican in 2004 for the first time since the 1972 Nixon-McGovern race. This fact was the catalyst for Murtha’s outrageous, self-serving, and baseless accusation that “there is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist state.”

In the recent special election, Republicans, who were confident they would win, blew it because they ran the wrong candidate. Tim Burns had money, but he failed to connect with the voters. Long-time Murtha aide, Democrat Mark Critz, won handily because he understood the decision-making process of his constituents. Hence, he ran to the right of the GOP candidate as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Obamacare candidate. As columnist George Will said of his election, the only good news for the national Democratic Party about Critz’s victory was that he is a Democrat.

The good news from Pennsylvania is that practicing Catholics still matter as a voting bloc in swing rust- belt states. By voting their values in tightly contested congressional races in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana this fall, Catholics could provide the margin of victory for pro-life candidates. Amid much else that seems to be going wrong with American values, that just might be an indicator of at least some things that could still go right.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.