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Benedict XVI and His Impact on the MMVI Midterm Elections

The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope is likely to have a major impact on next year’s midterm elections, as some voters around the country look to him for guidance and others see him as a defender of the status-quo. [IMGCAP(1)]

The German-born pope’s conservative theological views are well known, but his greatest impact could be in the American upper Midwest, where German Catholics constitute an important voting bloc.

If the pope-elect can motivate German-American Catholics the way his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, energized Poles, and if, as expected, he articulates traditional views on teachings of the church, Pope Benedict XVI could become a significant asset for conservatives in the United States generally and the GOP specifically.

Republicans reportedly are already planning to invite Benedict XVI to tour Catholic areas of Iowa, Wisconsin and southwestern Minnesota with Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.).

GOP insiders are hoping that Benedict XVI will agree to spend at least a few hours on a door-to-door voter registration effort in socially conservative areas, especially in German-American areas of Iowa’s open 1st district, which is expected to be in play next year. Incumbent Rep. Jim Nussle (R) is running for governor.

“It’s all about the base,” one Republican operative told me, “and there is nobody better than turning out the base than the pope. He’ll be fantastic. Just think of the earned media coverage he will get.”

Republican researchers have also uncovered information that they believe party leaders may be able to use in the next few months to push President Bush’s agenda.

According to GOP operatives, Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), for whom the new pope chose his name, was a strong advocate of peace. But there is some evidence that he was also concerned with economic security, so party strategists are looking into ways to sell the president’s Social Security personal accounts approach in light of Benedict XV’s views.

Democrats, however, may also have opportunities to benefit from the background, ethnicity and theological views of the new pope.

Party strategists immediately blasted Benedict XVI’s views on abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research and women in the priesthood. There is already talk of linking him to DeLay and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Democrats argue that moderates, women and people who don’t like the idea that the pope was a member of the Hitler Youth, whether involuntarily or not, might be just a bit turned off by Ratzinger.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Congressman Father Robert Drinan also criticized Republicans for mixing religion and politics.

But more than anything else, in selecting Ratzinger, a 78-year-old friend of the late Pope John Paul II, the College of Cardinals appears to have selected a placeholder, rather than a pope who is likely to keep the job for decades.

That decision could add to the pressure on Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) to appoint a placeholder to fill his vacant Senate seat in New Jersey, if and when it comes vacant. Indeed, Garden State Democrats are already referring to a so-called “Ratzinger scenario” that would allow Corzine not to have to choose between competing Democratic Members of Congress who want to be selected for the Senate.

So what’s the conclusion, the message here?

The 24/7 coverage of John Paul II’s death and the new pope’s selection probably was over the top. And now we’ll undoubtedly be bombarded with the “what does it mean for us” analysis. Everyone will have an opinion. We will be buried under a blizzard of speculation.

Of course, we do the same thing with politics. We spend too much time talking about six-year-itch elections, about the impact of the weather on election outcomes and about the relationship between the winner of the World Series and the winner of a race for president. And now, we have the Web, which means more opinions from more people. And CNN will cover it all.

For some, politics is merely entertainment (like this column, where everything, even the quotes, are fabricated). For others, it’s so serious that they can’t crack a smile at a joke (if it is at their party’s or candidate’s expense). They — no, we — need to find a balance.

Not everything actually has an impact on the next election. And not every development needs be analyzed as if it were a Congressional election in Indiana. Politics is fine, but it is, after all, just politics.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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