Some Republican political insiders were surprised by the full court press other GOP presidential candidates put on Sen. Sam Brownback for his endorsement last fall when he stepped out of the race.
But anyone who understands the importance of the Catholic vote in national Republican elections wasn't scratching his head. Brownback, more so than any other candidate, had built up a superior Catholic outreach program.
In the end, Brownback swung to John McCain, and, according to Republican National Committee staff, McCain saw his Catholic support in some states improve markedly within weeks.
"We were watching this, because Catholic outreach was one of our biggest weaknesses in 2006 and it hasn't improved, and we need some to understand why," says a senior RNC political staffer. "In Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, McCain saw his support among Catholics move from the negative to the positive. Mitt Romney had spent a lot of money on Catholic outreach, but McCain got the votes. Brownback had a lot to do with that."
The RNC staffer doesn't quite do the failings of RNC Catholic outreach justice. Among Republican presidential campaigns, the RNC's Catholic outreach programs over the past two years have been a running joke and embarrassment. "Even if they'd [the RNC's outreach organization] offered to help and we'd been able to accept that help, we'd have to think twice. They failed the party in 2006 and they're failing us now. The same crew in charge then is in charge now," says an aide to former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who worked in so-called "special groups" outreach.
Catholics make up about a 67 million voter block in the national electorate. In 2004, running against a man who claimed to be a Catholic in good standing, President George W. Bush won the Catholic vote nationally 52% to 47%. But even then, Republicans saw a traditional Catholic swath of votes in Ohio and Pennsylvania swing back to the Democrats.
In 2006, the bottom dropped out for the RNC when Democrats got 55% of the Catholic vote compared to 45% for Republicans. "Two thousand six was a bad year for a number of reasons, so you can't blame all of our losses on RNC Catholic outreach," says a political strategist aligned with former Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. "But it has to be troubling that we've seen these numbers among Catholic voters crater like this."
Other political onlookers point to the fact that President Bush has been solid on life issues and, for the most part, judges. He attended the past two National Catholic Prayer Breakfasts and was greeted with a heroes welcome.
"It has to be failings in leadership at the RNC grassroots organizational level and other issues like economics, Iraq and such in play," says a current White House aide in the public liaison office. "President Bush has been solid with Catholics. I'd only point out that Senator McCain appears to be doing well with Catholics now, and you couldn't say the same of other candidates or the party in general. We're watching the situation with interest, obviously."