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Why We Should Take Rick Santorum's Presidential Ambitions Seriously

5 years ago
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If you believe a fundraising letter he sent to supporters a few months ago -- or if you think trips to New Hampshire and Iowa foreshadow a campaign -- former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is exploring a run for president. And the first question that comes to mind is . . . why?

Every campaign demands a raison d'être, but Rick Santorum has to answer an even more difficult question than that: How does one go from losing re-election to the U.S. Senate by almost 20 points to winning the U.S. presidency?

Like other Republican victims of the 2006 elections, Santorum once seemed unstoppable. He was a rising conservative star, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate. But if his first Senate run in 1994 was blessed by the zeitgeist, a hostile political environment cursed his second re-election campaign in 2006.

But not all Santorum's woes can be blamed on the disastrous Republican year that was '06. Several years earlier, he also suffered some self-inflicted wounds, ranging from his comparison of homosexuality to bestiality to publishing a book that some saw as demeaning to women. These days, using politically incorrect rhetoric -- he tended to be abrasive and in-your-face on matters of social conservatism -- is as likely to help Santorum win GOP primary votes as it is to harm him. Nonetheless, his most damaging misstep involved the fact that, though the Pennsylvania senator resided in Leesburg, Va., he used taxpayer money from the Penn Hills School District to cover online school tuition for his children.

While the controversy likely was politically generated, the damage was done just the same. Aside from proving embarrassing, it underscored the notion that the Pennsylvania lawmaker was not really a resident of the Keystone State and also reinforced the narrative that Santorum had "gone Washington." It also demonstrated hypocrisy. In his 1990 race for a House seat, Santorum attacked incumbent Rep. Doug Walgren for moving away from his district. Santorum, who was then just 32, won. Ultimately, though, even Santorum supporters came to believe that the quixotic young conservative they helped elect had become too proud, and full of hubris.

When governors run for president, they often try to sell the story of how they turned their state around. Even Barack Obama, then a sitting U.S. senator, chose to highlight his connection to Illinois by announcing his candidacy in Springfield, a move that invoked the memory of Abraham Lincoln. But Rick Santorum is now essentially a man without a state. One person, in fact, went so far as to describe him as "damaged goods" in Pennsylvania. This is a problem, to be sure, but it could be overcome. One creative option for Santorum might be to run as a Virginian (he was born in Winchester and lived, as noted, in Leesburg while serving in the Senate). Regardless, everyone I interviewed for this story reiterated the view that Santorum isn't tied so much to a single state as he is a national political figure. Still, should he manage to wrest the GOP nomination from his adversaries, one can imagine a scenario where, like Al Gore in 2000, he loses his home state in the general election.

Whatever route he chooses, Santorum has work to do, even within the national conservative movement. In 2004, he endorsed Sen. Arlen Specter during a tough primary challenge from Rep. Patrick Toomey. (Many believe Santorum's team was involved in whisper campaigns suggesting to conservative voters that Toomey was not solidly pro-life.) There are several possible reasons for the endorsement, including pressure from the Bush administration or that Santorum simply believed only Specter was strong enough to hold the Pennsylvania seat for Republicans. But some observers think Santorum resented the possibility of having to compete with another young conservative senator in his home state. Regardless, Santorum's backing helped Specter fend off Toomey's tough challenge. That was six years ago, and it has haunted Santorum ever since, serving as a lone, but serious, asterisk on his otherwise impressive conservative resume, especially given Specter's eventual switch to the Democratic Party.

Though Santorum admitted at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that the endorsement was a mistake, it would undoubtedly be an issue in a Republican primary campaign. In fact, it has already been used against him in Iowa.

Every campaign needs a narrative -- it must tell a story. This one would require creativity. My sources indicate the Santorum camp has settled on a Churchillian narrative. Essentially, it goes like this: Santorum was right all along. He was right about creeping socialism. He was right about the culture. He was right about Islamic fascism. The people didn't appreciate him. He was a Cassandra. But now he has been vindicated.

If this seems like a stretch, it's because you are not a political strategist tasked with inventing a rationale for a Santorum presidential run. But the argument that he's electable isn't so hard to make. Clearly, there is room in the GOP for fresh candidates. Mitt Romney, who should be the presumptive frontrunner, has many problems, not the least of which is that he was essentially for Obamacare in Massachusetts. Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, still has to prove his conservative bona fides. And Sarah Palin is volatile. Her poll numbers seem to reflect the fact that while she is wildly popular within the conservative movement, that affinity is not transferable to the general public. It is unlikely she could run a focused, organized campaign. In fact, one of her biggest fans recently admitted she couldn't beat Obama. Santorum's people believe that Palin will eventually decide not to run, and that their candidate can rise up and occupy her niche. He is just as conservative as Palin, but greatly exceeds her in experience and sophistication. Given a relatively weak field, it's not as far-fetched as it might sound.

"Rick Santorum is absolutely a credible presidential candidate," says Colin Hanna, a Pennsylvanian and the president of Let Freedom Ring!, a conservative group that I previously advised. "He enjoys the distinction of being the most intensely focused [potential GOP candidate] on national security issues and on the threat of terrorism."

What is more, Santorum and his top strategist, John Brabender, are steadily building a respectable campaign infrastructure. Like almost every presidential hopeful, he started a PAC (America's Foundation), ostensibly to help other candidates. But of the $710,000 his PAC raised during the second half of 2009, only $38,500 went to that purpose. The majority of the money was spent on efforts, such as mailings, associated with building a large nationwide donor base.

As a practicing Catholic, Santorum could also tap into an underappreciated segment of the conservative movement. Interestingly, Romney received the lion's share of Catholic money last time around (despite the fact that he is a Mormon). This time out, Santorum would likely compete with him for that money and the support that comes with it. This is not insignificant, as many of the nation's top conservative opinion leaders are Catholic. In addition, he connects incredibly well with Evangelicals, who care about pro-life issues, which is always helpful in important primary states like Iowa and South Carolina.

But perhaps his savviest political move was to install longtime aide Rob Bickhart as the RNC finance director. In this capacity, Bickhart can essentially begin building a national fundraising base for Santorum, all the while earning a nice salary at the RNC.

Santorum may also benefit from low expectations. Having heard him speak at an event recently, I can say that he is surprisingly effective conveying his message and connecting with an audience. And the fact that he was burned in 2006 means he is battle-tested and better prepared to handle the tribulations that come with a presidential campaign.

Rick Santorum has some high hurdles to overcome, but don't write him off. Just as Mike Huckabee came out of nowhere to pose a credible challenge to John McCain in 2008, Santorum may also surprise in 2012.

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