President Barack Obama and House Catholic Democrats took a courageous stand in favor of providing access to healthcare for all Americans, and Tuesday they suffered the consequences of a two-year rhetorical assault by their Republican opponents. The Democrats lost at least 60 seats in the House, including stalwart Catholics like Steve Driehaus in Ohio, Tom Periello in Virginia and Patrick Murphy in Pennsylvania.
Periello in particular had run on a platform steeped in the language of the Catholic Social Tradition, rooted in his background working in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. He had distinguished himself previously as a Special Advisor to the international prosecutor of the Special Court set up in Sierra Leone to rectify the horrors visited there on children who had been turned into soldiers, and other victims of violence. His support for the Obama agenda was held against him in a relentness torrent of attack ads by outside groups.
Periello and his fellow Catholic Democrats were targeted by groups like the Susan Anthony List, which was repudiated in the closing days by election officials in Ohio for falsely claiming that the Healthcare Reform Law provides federal funding for abortion. The Supreme Court decision last winter in the Citizens United case had opened the flood gates for anonymous donors with deep pockets to spread a dark cloud of emotive misrepresentations on a host of issues dear to Catholics--with a liberal use of the word "socialist" to describe Democratic efforts to reform immigration, expand economic opportunity for the middle class and poor, blunt the recession, attend to the global warming crisis, and expand healthcare to the millions of Americans without it.
But the Tea Party also suffered significant losses that represented a voter repudiation of the more extreme views. Prominent candidates supported by Sarah Palin went down to defeat in Senate races around the country (Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Joe Miller in Alaska, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Linda McMahon in Connecticut).
Groups voting Democratic included a majority of women, 65% of Latino voters, young people, erudite people (PhDs) and those without high school diplomas. Perhaps the most striking statistics were who actually voted. CNN exit polling indicated that nearly a quarter of all voters were over 65. Voters under 25 dropped in half, and African-Americans were 20% less likely to go to the polls compared to 2008. Possibly as a result of efforts to portray healthcare for younger Americans as a threat to Medicare, seniors dramatically shifted their allegiance to the Republicans, up 10% over 2008.
The healthcare debate had been marred by Republican talk of "death panels" and the insinuation that expanding care to 47 million uninsured, mostly working Americans, posed a threat to the funding of Medicare for the elderly. The cruel irony was that the authors of these messages were themselves responsible for a government shutdown just 15 years ago, centered on their efforts to chop those same Medicare benefits over budget concerns. 50-somethings in the 1990s were not atuned to that issue then, and the collective amnesia contributed to a remarkable shift in allegiance by the elderly toward the Republicans in these midterms.
Preliminary CNN exit polling indicated that Catholics overall broke for the Republicans 53% to 45%, the same margin that supported President Obama in 2008. Edison Research projected only a slight overall increase in white Catholic support for Republicans, approaching 60%. Considering the strong majority of Latino voters supporting Democrats, it seemed clear that the swing in Catholic support toward the Republicans was substantially less than the 35% shift projected by a New York Times poll published just before the election.
With a new Catholic Speaker of the House, John Boehner, a stark question will be posed in the new Congress: will the social justice priorities that carried Barack Obama to the presidency now be set aside in the new Republican-dominated political landscape?