BOSTON (AP) - Not so long ago, Catholic voters in Massachusetts were seen as reliably Democratic, helping propel fellow Bay State Catholics like John F. Kennedy and Tip O'Neill into the uppermost echelons of national government.
But in Massachusetts' hard-fought U.S. Senate race, many of those old assumptions are out the window as Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren battle for votes in the closely-watched contest.
Neither Brown nor Warren is Catholic and the state no longer has the Catholic voting bloc it once had. Still, the candidates are vying for votes from among this constituency in one of the most Catholic states in the country.
Of the two, Brown has made the most direct appeal to Catholics as he seeks to retain the seat held by nearly half a century by the former president's brother - the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Central to Brown's pitch is his support for an amendment to the 2010 Affordable Care Act that would allow employers and insurers to refuse health care coverage for services they say violate their moral convictions, including contraception. One of the most high-profile critics of the federal law is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Brown routinely describes the so-called "Blunt amendment," named after Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, as "a conscience exemption in health care for Catholics and other people of faith."
"(Warren) and her allies on the left are dictating to Catholics and other people of faith that they must do as they are told when it comes to health care or face the consequences, regardless of their personal religious beliefs," Brown said in one fundraising email.
Warren, however, portrays the amendment as an attack on women's health care options that would allow insurance companies or employers to deny coverage for any health care service based on "any vague grounds of moral objection."
The amendment, which failed earlier this year, would allow insurers and employers to deny any service they say is "contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the purchaser or beneficiary of the coverage."
"The bill that Sen. Brown co-sponsored is not a bill about religious freedom, it was a bill about denying women access to needed health care services," Warren said.
Warren also points to actions taken by President Barack Obama to exempt churches that oppose contraception from covering the service. The law still requires religious-affiliated organizations, such as colleges or hospitals, to provide the coverage for workers.
Brown's appeal to Catholics isn't limited to the amendment.
One of his most vocal supporters is former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, a Democrat who also served as a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican from 1993 to 1997 and is a staunch opponent of abortion, which the church also opposes. Flynn's endorsement of Brown could help boost his support among conservative Catholic Democrats, even though Brown describes himself as "pro-choice."
Brown also has the backing of groups like Massachusetts Citizens for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion organization.
Groups that favor abortion access like Emily's List, which is dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights, are backing Warren who also describes herself as "pro-choice."
The two candidates also split on gay marriage, which the Catholic Church also opposes. Brown opposes gay marriage, which Warren supports.
A Warren spokeswoman said she has been reaching out to people of all faiths across Massachusetts.
"Catholics have been leaders in the fight for economic justice for all Americans, and they appreciate that Elizabeth has been a strong advocate for consumers and workers," said Warren spokeswoman Julie Edwards.
A 2010 census published earlier this year by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, found Massachusetts had the greatest percentage of Catholics of any state.
But Tufts University political science professor Jeffrey Berry said that while the Catholic Church helped build the Democratic Party in Massachusetts, a coherent Catholic voting bloc no longer exists.
For many Catholics, their religion is one of many considerations they bring to the voting booth, he said.
"There's no expectation these days that candidates be Catholic, as there is no longer the expectation that the mayor of Boston be Irish," Berry said.
Still, he said, many Catholics agree with their church's views on social issues like abortion and consider those views when they cast ballots.