NEW YORK — Against a backdrop of inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric and on the heels of a successful confirmation of a new U.S. Supreme Court justice, voters will head to the polls on Tuesday for what many political handicappers view as a referendum on President Donald Trump.
In what has been the most expensive midterm campaign in the history of American politics, some of the closest-watched races will pit Catholic candidates against one another, and in others it will match-up candidates that represent dramatically different stances on issues that test core Catholic values, such as the defense of the right to life and support for immigrants.
Earlier this summer, when the U.S. bishops met in Fort Lauderdale for their bi-annual meeting, they held a robust 90-minute discussion on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility, their official voting guidelines, which some bishops believe is due for an overhaul to better reflect the teachings of Pope Francis.
While a compromise position was reached — that the U.S. bishops would produce new materials to complement their current guide — such a project is still in development. While many are skeptical of the notion that any such thing as a “Catholic vote” exists in the United States, given that most Catholics tend to vote their politics rather than official Church teaching, there still will be a number of candidates and choices that offer an x-ray of a both a Church and country divided.
Republicans Attempt to Hang on to the Senate
As Republicans seek to hang on to their razor thin majority of 51-49 in the U.S. Senate, two of the most competitive races are match-ups between Catholics on both sides of the aisle.
In Indiana, incumbent Senator Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, is fighting off a challenge from Republican State Legislator Mike Braun. Donnelly, who met his wife as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, has run a centrist campaign in the traditionally Republican state.
While he identifies as pro-life, having voted in 2018 to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, some pro-lifers have criticized his past support for federal funding for Planned Parenthood. On immigration, Donnelly originally opposed the DREAM Act, which would have provided a permanent path to citizenship for undocumented minors who were born in the United States, however more recently he voted in favor of a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration bill proposed by Senators John McCain and Chris Coons.
Braun, who is a former Democrat, has been outspoken to his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and throughout his campaign, has championed Trump’s immigration policies and is an advocate for a border wall between the United States and Mexico. He has also been a strong defender of traditional marriage and religious liberty in the state.
Meanwhile, in West Virginia, incumbent Senator Joe Manchin is defending his senate seat against fellow Catholic and Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey.
Manchin identifies as pro-life and has received the backing of Democrats for Life, although he’s also received criticism by some pro-life groups for his varied support for federal funding of Planned Parenthood. On environmental issues, he’s a strong proponent of the use of coal and has supported the Keystone pipeline, and on immigration, he has opposed the DREAM Act as well as recent bipartisan legislation. Unlike most Democrats, he has also been a vocal proponent of the president’s border wall proposal.
Morrisey, the former Attorney General of the state, has frequently challenged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in court. He has also been a strong immigration hawk, threatening to sue the federal government if it did not terminate the DACA program, which protects undocumented minors who were born in the country from deportation. On abortion, Morrisey is an ardent opponent and has received the endorsement of West Virginians for Life.
Among the other high-profile races is incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri who is neck and neck in polls against challenger Josh Hawley, the state’s current Attorney General. McCaskill is a Catholic and has been strong defender of abortion rights and a strong supporter of the DREAM act on immigration. Hawley, her challenger, is an evangelical who has worked closely with Becket and Alliance Defending Freedom, the nation’s two leading religious liberty organizations.
In Tennessee, Representative Marsha Blackburn is competing against former Governor Phil Bredesen. Blackburn, who is Presbyterian, has been a long-time collaborator with the Susan B. Anthony List, which has a stated mission of electing pro-life politicians.
In Texas, incumbent Senator and former Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz is in a closely watched race against Beto O’Rourke. Cruz, who was originally a fierce critic of the president, has emerged as one of his closest allies, particularly on issues of immigration and support for the president’s Supreme Court picks.
O’Rourke, who hails from West Texas, is a Catholic who has made his pro-immigrant stance a signature issue.
Democrats Seek Control of the House
In order to gain control of the House of Representatives, Democrats must win at least 23 seats of the estimated 75 races that are considered contested.
In Iowa — where presidential hopefuls often spend much of their time testing the waters before a presidential run, Catholics Steve King and J.D. Scholten will square off. King, the Republic incumbent, is a convert to the faith. During his time in Congress, King has become known as a strong opponent of abortion and also immigration. He has also opposed the Affordable Care Act and led efforts to repeal it. He has recently come under attack for retweeting white nationalists and controversial remarks he has made as well as a meeting in Austria with a neo-fascist group.
Scholten, a former professional baseball player turned lawyer, has boasted on the campaign trail that he has taken the “Matthew 25 pledge to protect and defend the most vulnerable among us.”
While he says his own personal beliefs on abortion are shaped by his faith, he believes it should be a decision left up to individual women. On immigration, he supports a pathway to legal protection for undocumented immigrants and is a champion of comprehensive immigration reform.
Although hardly a contested race, 29-year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is expected to easily win her race against Republican challenger Anthony Pappas in New York’s 14th District. In the lead-up to her surprise primary upset over Democrat Joe Crowley this summer, she regularly discussed her Catholic faith and the influence of the Church’s social teaching in shaping her political views.
Ocasio-Cortez is a strong champion of immigrants, abortion rights, and a single-payer healthcare system.
In Florida, Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo, who is a Catholic, is facing a Democratic challenge from Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who has long worked in non-profits. In the deeply Hispanic district of Florida’s 26th congressional district, Curbelo is a moderate Republican who has opposed Obamacare and supported immigration reform. Given the heavily immigrant population in the Democratic district, many eyes will be watching Curbelo to see if a moderate Republican can keep his seat in a Trump presidency.
The Political Tightrope of U.S. Catholics
Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, what lies ahead is almost certainly a divided government with a Republican in the White House and one or both branches of the legislature held by the Democratic Party.
For the U.S. bishops, this will underscore the complicated nature of their relationship with both parties as they seek to move forward their own agenda of defending and implanting Catholic social teaching in the public square, as well as for the faithful in the pews who seek to discern what faithful citizenship requires.
That likely means another set of tough choices will be waiting for the U.S. bishops when they meet starting next Sunday in Baltimore for their annual fall meeting.