Sen. Bob Casey stands among a disappearing breed of Congressional Democrats.
The number of abortion opponents in the Democratic caucus dramatically dropped, from roughly 40 to 20, after the 2010 midterms. Pennsylvania’s senior Senator, up for re-election in 2012, is now one of just three anti-abortion Democrats in the Senate.
It might seem counterintuitive, therefore, that the Keystone State’s anti-abortion community is fiercely opposed to Casey’s re-election bid.
“To really call himself pro-life is not quite right,” said Helen Gohsler, president of the Scranton chapter of Pennsylvanians for Human Life, based in Casey’s hometown.
She laughed incredulously when asked whether the local anti-abortion community could support Casey in 2012. “He betrayed us,” she said.
The betrayal, according to Gohsler and other Pennsylvania anti-abortion activists, was Casey’s vote for President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. The final version of the legislation included a compromise to win over anti-abortion Members, but abortion opponents such as Gohsler are convinced that the bill allows taxpayer-funded abortion.
The groups might use health care and other issues to target evangelicals and Catholics they hope will oppose Casey’s re-election bid when he’s on the ballot. Roll Call Politics rates this race as Leans Democratic. The Senate’s other anti-abortion Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, also are up for re-election in 2012, giving anti-abortion groups a potential national platform to try to oust them.
Casey, who defeated staunch social conservative Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in 2006, largely shrugs off the criticism.
“Those groups were for Rick Santorum. He was their guy. They didn’t support Sen. Casey then, and they’re not going to support him now,” Casey spokesman Larry Smar said. “There’s a big difference between real Pennsylvanians and these interest groups.”
The Senator’s office rattles off a list of accomplishments, including two provisions in the health care bill, that reinforce his anti-abortion credentials. As recently as mid-December, Casey successfully fought against an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act that could have allowed taxpayer-funded abortions on military bases.
“He makes no secret of a pro-life voting record. He’s taken some very difficult pro-life votes,” said Casey’s chief of staff, Jim Brown. “We’re pretty proud actually of what he did in health care.”
The Senator’s office notes that Casey was a central figure in the compromise that sought to block the public funding of abortion. He also worked to insert provisions in the health care bill that boosted funding for the adoption tax credit and helped women bring pregnancies to term, additions celebrated by the anti-abortion community.
But Pennsylvania’s anti-abortion leaders say Casey’s ultimate vote to support the overhaul is unforgivable. The key question is whether the passionate opposition of the anti-abortion groups will complicate Casey’s re-election bid.
Exit interviews from his 2006 victory suggest that Casey drew considerable support from self-proclaimed moderates and abortion opponents. In a close race, any such erosion could make a difference. Nearly 40 percent of voters in Casey’s 2006 election said that abortion should be illegal, according to CNN exit polling, and he drew the support of more than one-third of those voters.
The religious vote also proved significant. One-third of the electorate in Casey’s contest reported being Catholic, and nearly 60 percent of them voted for him. But it’s hard to know whether those statistics will hold, given it was a year in which Democrats unseated Republican incumbents all across the country.
The head of Pennsylvania’s largest anti-abortion group said that Casey’s vote for the health care bill will erode any support he received in 2006 from cultural conservatives.
“Pro-lifers in Pennsylvania are terribly disappointed with Sen. Casey’s vote in favor of President Obama’s health care reform law,” said Michael Ciccocioppo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. He added that he believes the legislation would federally subsidize abortion and deny care to the elderly through “the rationing of medically necessary treatments.”
“We know that Casey’s office was flooded with constituents urging him to vote ‘No.’ In the end, on the biggest vote of his career, he didn’t listen to the voters. Pro-life Pennsylvanians have long memories,” Ciccocioppo said.
Ciccocioppo’s interpretation of the bill, of course, is the subject of intense debate. Casey’s office said the Senator fundamentally believes that the health care bill does not fund abortions and ultimately provides quality health care to tens of millions of uninsured people, thereby further working to protect human life.
There’s also evidence to suggest that Casey has worked well with Pennsylvania’s religious leaders.
Philadelphia Archbishop Justin Rigali, who served as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee for anti-abortion activities, distributed an open letter to Senators in May 2009 encouraging them to support Casey’s Pregnant Women Support Act. The major tenets of the bill were later adopted as part of the health care overhaul.
What then explains the conflict with the local anti-abortion community?
“I think there’s a lot of distortion of his pro-life record,” said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, a national anti-abortion group. “I think Sen. Casey has been much more quiet about his advocacy. If you look at his record, it’s very strong. What he’s been able to do behind the scenes in the Democratic Party is very, very good.”
She noted the provision he pushed for in the health care bill that is now helping pregnant women in 17 states. “That was a pretty amazing victory from a pro-life perspective,” she said.
Some anti-abortion groups have been taken over by conservatives who oppose Democrats regardless of their views on abortion, according to Day. “The Pennsylvania Right to Life chapter has always been very conservative. We’re seeing this more and more across the country where pro-life groups won’t support Democrats,” she said, citing the recent defeat of Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, an anti-abortion Democrat who represented Pennsylvania’s 3rd district for just one term.
“The pro-life community really went after her,” Day said, adding that Dahlkemper, who had a child before she was married, could have been a poster child for the anti-abortion movement. But Dahlkemper, like many other Blue Dog Democrats who lost in 2010, supported the health care bill.
“It was a good election issue to defeat pro-life Democrats who supported the [health care] bill,” Day said. “But the fact of the matter is that the bill doesn’t fund abortions.”
Looking to Casey’s 2012 race, a Republican challenger has yet to emerge. But some of the prospective candidates, Rep. Charlie Dent for example, have similar or more liberal views on abortion policies than Casey.
Back in Scranton, Gohsler wouldn’t rule out supporting Casey should a candidate who supports abortion rights emerge. But don’t count on it, she said, laughing: “I don’t see it at all.”