Bill Moore opened his mailbox last week to find a survey from CatholicVote, a conservative group backing President Donald Trump, which proclaimed, “There is a war on Catholics and faith in God.”
His St. Paul neighbors who watch a Catholic cable television channel soon will hear from Democratic challenger Joe Biden, whose campaign is launching TV spots here featuring Biden saying, “My father would say that the cardinal sin of all sins is the abuse of power. …”
The Catholic vote is being aggressively courted during these final weeks of the presidential campaign. Many Minnesota faithful are being targeted with mailings, text messages, phone calls and invitations to Zoom events that include praying the rosary with a nun.
Catholics make up the largest single religious group in the nation, an estimated 23% of the electorate. They’re being targeted in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and other battleground states.
“Minnesota is a critical state for us in our path to 270 electoral votes,” said John McCarthy, deputy national political director for the Biden campaign. “We’re holding conversations with multiple constituencies, and a key piece is organizing the Catholic community.”
Presidential candidates have long courted religious groups, including Catholics. But with Trump’s slim margin of victory in 2016 in some heavily Catholic states, and evangelicals deemed a reliable vote for the president, eyes have turned to this sizable faith group.
“Given the size of Minnesota’s Catholic population and the role that Catholic voters play in our election, we believe that the Catholic vote can be decisive — Minnesota included,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, a pro-Trump group that has spent more than $10 million to date.
Many lifelong Catholics such as Moore, a retired labor union leader and former priest, are uneasy with this focus, arguing that religion is a personal, not political, issue. But they acknowledge that some faithful may be open to campaign persuasion.
“These are complicated times,” said Moore. “If you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat or Republican, it can be a confusing environment to make a decision in.”
Researchers say that Catholic voters can be divided roughly into two main camps, the regular churchgoers who tend to vote Republican and the less diligent who tend to vote Democratic. There’s also the smaller but growing number of Latino faithful, who skew Democrat.
Case in point: When the Wisconsin Catholic priest, the Rev. James Altman, appeared in a viral video claiming “You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat,” arguing that Catholic Democrats were doomed to hell, some Catholics applauded. Many were appalled.
Andy LaBine watched the video with satisfaction. He’s among the Minnesota Catholic voters whose top election issue is ending legalized abortion. All other issues fall way behind. He’s a Trump backer, defending the president on social media and donating monthly to his campaign.
LaBine firmly believes that life begins at conception. Any candidate who disagrees will never get his vote — even a Catholic such as Biden. He’s thrilled that Trump spoke at the 2020 National March for Life rally in Washington and energized by his appointing judges who agree with his abortion stance
He argues that Biden, who supports abortion rights, has been “duped.”
“If we don’t have the right to life, I’m not sure anything else matters,” said LaBine, a Twin Cities businessman. “President Donald Trump is spot on. He’s probably more Catholic than a lot of the U.S. bishops.”
Mary Beth Stein, a retired theology professor, is among Catholics backing Biden. She said she bases her voting behavior, her personal behavior, on Catholic social teaching such as caring for the poor, the vulnerable, the earth.
“I look at the sanctity of life across an entire life span, across creation, across the globe,” said Stein, of Shoreview.
Stein strongly disagrees with Trump’s policies of restricting refugees, reinstating the federal death penalty, curbing environmental standards. She isn’t actively campaigning for Biden, but posted a lawn sign for him this week.
Does it help that Biden is a Catholic?
“I hadn’t even thought of that,” she said.
Unlike the evangelicals, 82% of whom voted for Trump in 2016, just over half of the nation’s Catholics voted for the president. The majority voted for former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and former President George W. Bush in 2004.
Campaign officials view the voting shifts as opportunity.
Google “Catholics for Trump” and it’s easy to find the president’s pitch to the faithful. “Reelecting President Donald Trump will ensure continued victories in anti-abortion issues, judicial appointments, and religious freedom.”
This week’s activities include a “Virtual Prayer Call” in Maine, a “MAGA Meetup” with Wisconsin Republican congressman Bryan Steil, and a “theology Thursday” with Eduardo Verastegui, a Mexican actor on Trump’s Hispanic advisory committee.
CatholicVote reinforces that work. It has staff in eight battleground states and sophisticated technology to track and text Mass-goers, Burch said, and is sending fundraiser surveys to 1 million Catholic voters.
Meanwhile Catholics for Biden, whose web page features a photo of Biden standing face-to-face with Pope Francis, states “Vice President Biden believes that in America … everyone should be able to live up to their God-given potential.”
His website doesn’t list events. But Minnesota campaign staff say there are virtual “Believers for Biden” events including weekly devotionals, Catholics for Biden national concerts and Catholics for Biden national calls to action. There’s also Catholic-to-Catholic phone banks in swing states and other outreach.
Minnesota is among the states targeted for a new TV advertisement in which Biden is seen talking to a Catholic priest about his faith. Political observers say it may be unprecedented.
“I cannot think of any presidential candidate who has stressed his Catholic faith in advertising,” said John White, a political-science professor at Catholic University of America and a co-chair of Catholics for Biden.
Whether the flurry of outreach will influence voters in this divisive election year remains unclear. For ardent abortion-rights opponents such as Evie and Jonathan Schwartzbauer, an artist and youth minister from Minneapolis, “this election is less about Trump and more about the evils of Joe Biden.”
Anne Jones, a Minneapolis nurse argues the opposite: “I’m terrified of this current administration.”
Earlier this month, a poll of 1,212 likely Catholic voters released by Eternal World Television Network and RealClear Opinion showed 53% favored Biden, compared with 41% who preferred Trump.
It’s a different world from 1960 when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, said Moore, who as a boy even shook Kennedy’s hand after his speech at the Twin Cities airport.
Kennedy won nearly 80% of the Catholic vote then, research showed. Said Moore: “Things are more complex today.”