The last pro-life democrat?

Posted: Jun 06, 2002 12:00 AM
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 prevented it. 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 victory. 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.