WASHINGTON -- Nobody really expected that Robert Casey Jr., an
experienced statewide candidate with a golden political name in
Pennsylvania, would lose last month's Democratic primary for governor in a
landslide. His crushing defeat raises a question with national political
implications. Will he become the last pro-life Democrat ever to be a serious
candidate for major office in a big urban state?
Edward Rendell's advantage as a much-admired former mayor of
Philadelphia helps explain his staggering 4 to 1 advantage in the state's
major city and its suburbs. But it surely is not the only reason. Whatever
chance State Auditor General Casey had was wiped out by the abortion lobby's
tough campaign against him, conducted mostly beneath the political radar.
Republican suburban women were even convinced by the National Abortion and
Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) to change party registration to
stave off a threat against abortion.
The effective disappearance of anti-abortion Democrats is bad
news for the pro-life movement. If the Democratic Party is exclusively
pro-choice, the Republicans can play both sides on abortion. Foes of
abortion complain of receiving more rhetoric than results from President
Bush and in the future expect slim rations at the Republican table. That may
explain the vigor with which pro-lifers minimize the importance of abortion
in the Pennsylvania outcome.
The symbolic importance of the May 21 primary was heightened by
the fact that Bobby Casey was no obscure Democratic maverick. His father,
the late Robert Casey Sr., was a popular governor in 1987-1994 and became a
national hero for pro-lifers when he was barred from addressing the 1992
Democratic National Convention. He had planned to run for the 1996
presidential nomination against President Bill Clinton until poor health
The Caseys, father and son, represent a type once common in the
Democratic Party but now nearly extinct: pro-life, pro-gun, pro-labor and
very liberal on economic issues. Bobby Casey entered what was expected to be
a close race this year with labor union backing. He was favored over
Rendell, a prototypical big city politician who had lost badly to the senior
Casey in the 1986 primary for governor.
The results staggered friend and foe. Rendell carried only the
nine counties in the greater Philadelphia area plus the county containing
Penn State University, while Casey won 57 counties. Rendell won nearly 81
percent of the vote from Philadelphia and neighboring Bucks and Montgomery
counties, compared to Casey's 55.6 percent share in the remaining 64
counties of the state. Nor did anybody expect the disproportionately heavy
turnout in the Philadelphia area. The result: a 12.4-point statewide
Nobody was smiling more broadly on May 22 than NARAL President
Kate Michelman. The abortion lobby poured in $574,000 against Casey,
including a blunt television ad that warned voters: "Ed Rendell trusts
Pennsylvania's women. He's pro-choice and opposes any attempt to criminalize
abortions . . . Bob Casey would sign a law banning abortions. Casey even
opposes abortions for victims of rape and incest." NARAL targeted some
90,000 voters "likely" to oppose Casey on abortion.
Michelman and NARAL were most effective in the traditionally
Republican suburbs of Philadelphia. Casey was wiped out there -- 4 to 1 in
Bucks County, 8 to 1 in Montgomery County. Casey's local suburban supporters
say the abortion lobby destroyed him. Using a personal letter from
Michelman, NARAL went after 13,000 Republican pro-choice voters in the
Philadelphia suburbs (predominantly women) and got 89 percent of them to
actually switch parties to vote for Rendell.
Why did 100,000 more Pennsylvanians vote on May 21 than usually
vote in primaries for governor? Was it abortion? "It certainly had an
effect," Casey himself told me, while asserting it was not the major reason.
Jeff Bell, a veteran conservative Republican activist who had
planned to work in the elder Casey's contemplated campaign for president,
denies that abortion played a serious role in the younger Casey's defeat.
Indeed, there is widespread agreement with Bell that Casey's campaign was
too negative and erred in moving left of Rendell on labor issues.
Nevertheless, Bell concedes there "could be a self-fulfilling
prophecy." That prophecy: Henceforth, no practical Democratic politician
will seek statewide office in urbanized states as a true foe of abortion.