Political Animal


March 30, 2012 3:20 PM Who Slew the Santorum Campaign?

By Ed Kilgore

Probably in anticipation of Rick Santorum’s increasingly likely defeat in Wisconsin next Tuesday, which will materially increase GOP establishment (and even movement-conservative establishment) calls for him to get out of the race, Sam Stein and Jason Cherkis of HuffPost published a very long piece comparing the candidate’s problems this year with those he exhibited in his disastrous 2006 re-election campaign.

It’s all pretty fascinating, full of 2006 campaign anecdotes that mostly establish what an absolute bummer it was to be on Team Santorum that year. Voters were angry at Rick, Rick was angry at the world, and it was pretty obvious he was going down to abject defeat long before the votes were counted.

In terms of Santorum’s mistakes, this account mostly focuses on his inability to put a lid on his radical religious-based social views, as exhibited by his decision to publish a book on the brink of his re-election campaign that more or less made him sound like Pat Buchanan with an advanced degree from some very conservative European Catholic seminary. When added to his Google problem and his very conspicuous role in the embarrassment of the U.S. Senate during the Terri Schiavo saga, it was just all too much for Pennsylvania voters who were not in a pro-Republican mood to begin with.

Stein and Cherkis suggest that Santorum has had similar problems inhibiting his cultural extremism in this campaign.

I dunno about that. We would not still be talking about Santorum had he not finally nailed down the support of Iowa’s hard-core cultural conservatives (and of their leader, Bob Vander Plaats) just prior to the January Caucuses. And it wasn’t easy, what with everyone else in the field (with the occasional exception of Mitt Romney and Herman Cain) eager to pander to the Christian Right and particularly to some of the country’s most intense opponents of legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. It’s true that Santorum only had to highlight, not exaggerate, his views, but had he not, for example, signed onto Vander Plaats’ extremist Marriage Vow, he’d have probably never made it out of the single digits in Iowa.

Later on, it’s unlikely Santorum could have become the very favorite candidate of conservative evangelical voters nationwide if he had spent all his time talking about the economy or the federal budget. Sure, he could have probably done without the Satan-talk and the JFK-bashing, but those utterances, too, were helpful in identifying Rick with the “Christian Worldview” that embraces “spiritual warfare” and regards the very idea of church-state separation as a secularist abomination.

But when you look at the ammunition used by Mitt Romney and his Super-PAC to defeat Santorum in primary after primary, it becomes reasonably clear that it’s not his cultural views, but his identification with the Washington GOP Establishment (the very Establishment, ironically, that lined up with Romney so avidly) that’s been the killer. His votes for George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Rx Drug benefit initiatives; his past defense of earmarking; and his endorsement of Arlen Specter in a GOP primary, were all heavily used against him (only the Specter endorsement seemed to be a big deal in 2006, when it affected the enthusiasm of his conservative activist “base”). And beyond that, a couple of Washington Insider issues that were prominent in his 2006 defeat re-emerged, notably his use of Pennsylvania taxpayer dollars to educate his kids in Virginia, and his leadership in the notorious lobbyist shakedown operation the K Street Project.

Maybe Santorum went into the current race thinking Mitt Romney of all people couldn’t possibly be cynical enough to run to his right on non-cultural issues, but if so, he guessed fatally wrong (as did Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich).

Santorum’s goose was probably cooked from the beginning, and only an exceptionally weak field kept him viable for so long. I have no idea what the future holds for him. Maybe if Romney is elected he’ll throw him a bone, though that may depend on how long he stays in the race. If nothing else, there will always be room for him as a guest speaker in those megachurches and Pizza Ranches of Iowa, where his improbable presidential campaign took off.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • PaminBB on March 30, 2012 3:49 PM:

    The fact that his kids were being home schooled in VA at the expense of taxpayers in PA received a lot of publicity in PA, none of it reflecting well on Ricky. It also became clear that the family no longer maintained a residence in PA (someone else lived in the house he used as his in-state address), but he tried to deny it (unsuccessfully).

  • Geoff G on March 30, 2012 4:00 PM:

    It's possible that the facts that Santorum had no money, minimal organization, and no visible (or invisible) support from any establishment Repubs are enough to explain why he didn't win. The more remarkable thing is that a guy who lost his last election by an historic margin and whose national profile prior to the race was more about froth (and not the good kind, from a Repub perspective) than statesmanship held out as long as he did.

  • T2 on March 30, 2012 4:03 PM:

    Santorum is finally losing because he is a loser, and crazy. In today's GOP, that can take you a long way....but not long enough. Instead they'll get a liar who's a snob.

  • liam foote on March 30, 2012 5:39 PM:

    Mr. Santorum 3 wins on Feb 7th established him as the anti-Romney candidate and 10 days later he was leading Mr. Romney in the RCP aggregate poll, 34.2% to 27.8% heading toward crucial primaries in Michigan (Feb 28) and Ohio (Mar 7). Anticipating a torrent of attack ads, he ran a clever pre-emptive strike of his own featuring Romney unsuccessfully flinging mud.

    All he had to do in the two states with the highest number of American auto workers by far was to keep repeating variations of "Let Detroit go bankrupt" and to turn Romney's wealth and funding against him, so that the inevitable attacks would be seen as weakness or desperation of a complete poobah.

    Instead he shifted his attention to Mr. Obama and began to talk trash and nonsense and, in probably the biggest mistake, insulted the memory of JFK for no apparent reason. The beginning of the end. He lost Michigan by 41.1% to 37.9% and a squeaker in Ohio, 37.9% to 37.1%, allowing the Mitt to survive. Nobody to blame but himself. He always was a tool.

  • Texas Aggie on March 31, 2012 12:13 PM:

    I grew up in PA in one of the few counties that went for Goldwater. For that reason I am not the least surprised that jerks like Toomey and this disaster sitting in Harrisburg were elected, but I was greatly surprised that Richard Santorum lost so badly to Casey. Then seeing Casey in action, I am not that surprised since thirty years ago he would have been a republican conservative.

    You want to know "What's Wrong With Kansas?" Come to rural PA and find out what's wrong in spades.