While Democrats in some states continue to run away from religious voters, Bob Casey Jr., a generally pro-life Pennsylvania Catholic, stands a good chance of toppling the GOP's No. 3 man in the Senate, pro-life Catholic Rick Santorum.
Bolstered by his namesake-a popular former governor who opposed abortion despite pressure from his party-Casey has enjoyed strong support among the state's socially conservative but Democratic-leaning public, in part because of his religion-friendly image. Meanwhile, the two-term incumbent has struggled to energize his Christian conservative base, which resents his endorsement of liberal Sen. Arlen Specter's 2004 reelection bid.
In early September, Santorum's uphill battle seemed to gain momentum when a Zogby/Wall Street Journal poll shrunk Casey's lead to 4 percent, down from a 12-point lead in December. The last three days of the poll coincided with a debate between the candidates on Meet the Press, adding weight to Santorum's prediction that Casey's popularity would shrink once he was forced to reveal his positions.
By opposing embryonic stem-cell research, gun control, and early withdrawal from Iraq, Casey risked alienating his party's base. But his support for same-sex civil unions and the Plan B morning-after pill ensured a cold reception from many of the values voters who stood between Sen. John Kerry and the White House in the 2004 election.
During the debate, Santorum took a jab at Casey's inconsistent views on abortion, saying, "His father would be very upset if he were alive today and heard him be supportive of [the morning-after pill]." Casey also refused to name a single federal program that he would cut to balance the budget.
But by the end of the month, public opinion swung back in Casey's favor, despite the incumbent's $8 million investment in television and radio ads. In a Quinnipiac University poll Casey had a 54 percent lead to Santorum's 40 percent. To explain Santorum's low numbers, analysts first focused on guilt-by-association with President Bush, while Casey has called his opponent a "rubber stamp" for the Bush administration. Now a poll by Temple University's Institute of Public Affairs offers a more in-depth answer, including a look at the role of religion.
"National considerations are certainly influencing the Senate race, but our results also underscore the importance in Pennsylvania of the candidates themselves," said IPA director Michael G. Hagen, adding that "support for Casey is not motivated just by antipathy toward Santorum. Democrats' opinion of Casey is just as favorable as Republicans' opinion of Santorum."
Among voters who attend church once a month or more, Casey trailed a mere 2 percentage points behind Santorum, faring better than John Kerry had in a 2004 Temple poll that gave Bush a comfortable 12-point lead. Self-described evangelicals favored Santorum over Casey, 50 percent to 39 percent, while Casey led among Catholics, 49 percent to 37 percent.
Running as a "new kind of Democrat," Casey does not hesitate to discuss his faith. When he learned that Santorum had sent a videotaped message to the Pennsylvania Pastors Network, a coalition of nonprofits seeking to increase religious voter turnout, Casey addressed the group in person.
Last month, a television ad celebrated Casey's year-long work as a mentor with the Jesuit Corps. Speaking at his law school, Catholic University, Casey invoked the Conference of Catholic Bishops' "Guide to Faithful Citizenship" to describe the relationship of his faith to his public life: "My understanding of the common good also comes from my faith: faith in God, that all things will ultimately work to His greater good."
Some Pennsylvania conservatives like Casey but oppose helping the national Democratic Party to potentially gain a Senate majority. Others listen to James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who visited Pittsburgh last month to muster Republican votes. Dobson chastised the GOP but, like many Pennsylvania conservatives, isn't ready to stand behind a Democrat who promotes an abortifacient drug and gay "civil unions" and demands the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Dobson said, "Whether Republicans deserve the power they were given, the alternatives are downright frightening."