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Not the Party Faithful Anymore

By Mark Stricherz
Sunday, May 18, 2008

Irmo Antonacci used to vote for Democratic presidential candidates. A son of Italian immigrants, the 80-year-old retiree lives in Jeannette, Pa., a down-at-the-heels smokestack city southeast of Pittsburgh. After dropping out of college in 1950, he got a job installing telephones with Bell Penn and joined a union. He registered as a Democrat and became a John F. Kennedy fan. A decade ago, he was the Democratic committeeman from the town's 5th ward.

But Antonacci no longer automatically pulls the lever for the candidate with (D) beside his or her name. "I'd seen the time from where the party used to be and where the party is now accepting abortion and gay rights," he says. "And I didn't go for that."

On the lawn in front of Antonacci's one-story brick house stands a foot-high statue of St. Francis and another of the Virgin Mary, symbols of a transformation that could spell trouble for the Democrats in November. It's the transformation of a group of voters we might call Casey Democrats, after the late Robert P. Casey Sr., governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1995.

Like Casey, these voters -- blue-collar and religious, often Catholic -- are liberal on economic issues but conservative on cultural ones. Where they once looked to union leaders and their fellow union members for political guidance, they now look to their religious leaders and fellow churchgoers. And in the last decade, to the dismay of Democratic strategists, they've been voting for Republican presidential candidates. According to Democratic pollster and strategist Stan Greenberg, they made up the 10 percent of white Catholics who identify with the Democrats but didn't vote for Sen. John F. Kerry for president in 2004. And if Sen. Barack Obama can't do better with the Casey Democrats, his presidential bid may fare no better than Kerry's.

Antonacci's story is fairly common in his native Westmoreland County. Except for 1972, Westmoreland went for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election between 1936 and 1996. At the congressional level, the county remains Democratic; both local House members are Democrats, and registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans nearly 2 to 1. Yet in the last two presidential elections, the county has gone Republican.

A similar pattern has emerged in a handful of Rust Belt and border states. With the exception of 1972 and 1984, West Virginia also voted for the Democratic presidential nominee from 1932 to 1996, and it hasn't elected a GOP senator for generations. Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas and Ohio all went for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and for Bill Clinton twice. All but Ohio have been dominated by Democrats at the congressional and gubernatorial levels for decades. But all five went for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

The reason: Casey Democrats. "Democrats' difficulties with this group surely have a great deal to do with these voters' sense of cultural alienation from the national Democratic Party and its relatively cosmopolitan values around religion, family, guns and other social institutions/practices," blogged Democratic strategist Ruy Teixeira after the 2004 election. Just two years earlier, in their book, "The Emerging Democratic Majority," Teixeira and John Judis had predicted that the party's economic liberalism would bear the Democratic nominee to victory in such states.

Why have Casey Democrats defected?

Consider the story of Antonacci's hometown of Jeannette. The hilly city once boasted more than a half-dozen manufacturing plants: Pennsylvania Rubber Co., Jeannette Glass, Victor Brewing Co. and others. Due to AFL and CIO organizing efforts during the Depression, the jobs in these factories were stable and well paid. After World War II, Jeannette's population soared to 20,000.

Then came globalization. By the mid-to-late 1980s, most of the factories had closed. The population dropped by half, and many businesses left. Now the downtown is pockmarked with storefronts for sale or lease.

The old industrial order in Westmoreland County is declining. It's not that the economy has withered; its structure has simply changed. Instead of mines and smokestacks, the county now has malls and industrial parks. For every town in economic decline such as Jeannette, there are one or two on the economic upswing.

The area's politics have also changed. In 1972, more than a third of the state's workforce was still unionized. Today the figure is 18 percent. The largest union left in Westmoreland is the Service Employees International Union, with only 800 to 900 members. "Their influence," says County Commissioner Tom Balya, a Democrat, "has diminished over time."

If local unions had remained robust, county voters might have stuck with the national Democratic Party. Union members gave 59 percent of their votes to Clinton in 1996 and the same percentage to Al Gore in 2000. But the unions' disintegration has loosened Casey Democrats' ties to the national party.

Moving into the unions' place is the church. Take a drive through downtown Greensburg, the county seat. When I arrived one Saturday afternoon in late 2006, the sound of an announcer calling a football game at Seton Hill University, a small Catholic liberal arts school in town, blared from several streets away. A few blocks from the football field is the headquarters of the Westmoreland County archdiocese. Half a mile away, at the top of North Main Street, stands a Knights of Columbus hall. Not far away is the Aquinas Academy, an elementary school run by the Sisters of Charity. Next door is Blessed Sacrament Cathedral; at the packed Sunday Mass I attended, seniors stood elbow to elbow with young married couples, most with small children.

In August 2004, only months after being installed, Greensburg Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt declared that pro-abortion rights Catholic politicians should refrain from receiving Holy Communion -- a not-so-subtle reference to presidential candidate Kerry. Because the church plays such a major role in local life, it's highly likely that some Catholic voters were influenced by Brandt. With the Catholic Church in alliance with the GOP and the National Rifle Association, "it's a powerful combination" against Democrats, says county Democratic chairwoman Rosemary Trump.

In dealing with Casey Democrats, the national party faces two temptations. One is to ignore them. The party had planned to target voters in more libertarian Mountain West states this fall. But with Arizona Sen. John McCain the presumptive GOP nominee, Democrats are less likely to flip states such as Nevada and Colorado. The second temptation is to assume that Casey Democrats will support the Democratic ticket because Obama has been endorsed by figures such as Sen. Bob Casey Jr., the late Pennsylvania governor's son. But Casey's endorsement failed to prevent Obama's nine-point loss to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary last month.

The bottom line is clear: The party must woo Casey Democrats in Rust Belt and border states -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky. To win them over, it won't be enough for Democrats to hammer the GOP over the economy and the war in Iraq, as Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, did in 2004, or merely to use inclusive language and support partial-birth abortion, as Obama and Clinton have done. Instead, Democrats must address voters' real concerns about protecting families and human life, as Gov. Casey did. "Catholic voters have emerged more pro-life," pollster Greenberg wrote in a 2005 memo, "but they are very responsive to a broad initiative to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the number of abortions."

As the front-runner for his party's nomination, Obama can start to win over Casey Democrats by endorsing the Pregnant Women Support Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Casey. This legislation would, among other things, provide adoption information to pregnant women, give lower-income women free sonograms and require abortion clinics to obtain informed consent from women seeking to end a pregnancy.

Endorsing it is sure to alienate many cultural liberals. But supporting it could help win over many Casey Democrats -- and possibly a few key swing states this fall.

stricherz2@yahoo.com

Mark Stricherz is the author of "Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party."

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