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ELECTION-STATES (UPDATED) Nov-5-2008 (850 words) xxxn

Democrats make gains in gubernatorial, congressional races

By Chaz Muth
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The U.S. electorate appears to have focused more on the struggling economy than social issues as they selected governors and members of Congress, with Democrats making gains throughout the country.

Democrats won seven of the 11 gubernatorial elections Nov. 4 and could take as many as 25 new House seats and at least five additional Senate seats, gaining significant majorities in Congress. By midday Nov. 5 the results of several races were not final.

"It appears the majority of the voters who supported (President-elect Barack) Obama supported Democratic candidates," said Stephen Krason, 54, a political science professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. He also is president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

"Economics is a normal thing for the electorate to focus on, but with what has been going on in the last two months it's not surprising that the economy began to dwarf other things in the last several weeks," he said Nov. 5 in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

Political campaigns nationwide began to focus on the economy after Sept. 15, when dramatic fluctuations overwhelmed the New York Stock Exchange, some giant financial services firms declared bankruptcy and credit markets began to freeze up.

It's also typical for the electorate to turn on the political party in charge of the country during an economic crisis, and since President George W. Bush is a Republican, that explains why Democrats made such gains in the national and state elections, Krason said.

Issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage were not raised in most political races this election cycle and polls showed the electorate gave those matters much less weight when casting their ballots, he said.

"You are seeing an ingraining of an anti-traditional movement in the country," Krason said. "It seems as though the electorate is accepting the cultural developments on abortion and sexual questions and that is why you are not seeing those issues stressed by the candidates. The politics reflects the culture."

Though Democrats have traditionally favored funding social programs for the needy, it's too early to tell if charitable organizations will benefit from the greater numbers of Democratic officeholders, said Candy S. Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs at Catholic Charities USA.

"We have a terrible situation with our economy, and no matter what party is in power, that is going to be the focus right now, especially in the first 100 days of the Obama administration," Hill said. "Our message will not change. We're dedicated to working on both sides of the aisle. We will welcome new faces to Washington and in the states, and to establishing partnerships with those who serve."

In Obama's address to the nation after he was declared the winner of the 2008 presidential election Nov. 4, the president-elect urged Americans to answer the call to service for those in need, a plea that Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, hopes elected officials hear as well.

"The current economic crisis affects all Americans, especially the millions served by Catholic Charities," Father Snyder said. "As the members of the 111th Congress sit down to work with President-elect Obama to address this urgent crisis, we hope that they will work harder to look after the 37 million people living in poverty."

The economic situation also took other hot topics important to Catholics -- such as immigration reform -- out of the conversation during this political season, Hill said.

"Immigration took a back seat during the 2008 election process," she said. "The No. 1 issue was the economy. This was a mandate from the people and they've made it clear this has to be addressed. These were not the same concerns expressed by the electorate four years ago. It's a different country now than it was four years ago when President Bush was re-elected."

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a 55-year-old Catholic lawmaker who has been in Congress since 1981, fended off his Democratic challenger with 67 percent of the votes Nov. 4, but said his win didn't come without battle scars.

He blamed partisan journalists in the media for tarnishing the images of several GOP candidates during this election season.

"It was not a good year for Republicans," Smith told CNS. "The economy did much to hurt the Republican candidates, but the catastrophic loss of objectivity among the national media, especially from broadcast media, really did a number on Republican candidates. I've been in politics a long time, and I've never seen anything like this."

The economy also dominated the U.S. political campaigns of 1820, 1896 and 1932, Krason said.

"I was a little surprised that issues like abortion didn't come up during this election, considering the next appointments to the Supreme Court could shift the balance on Roe v. Wade," he said, referring to the 1973 decision legalizing abortion virtually on demand.

"But politicians respond to the polls. We are saturated with polls nowadays. Politicians have become respondents to the electorate and they're afraid of alienating one group or another," he said.


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