Santorum’s Electability Pitch Undermined by 2006 Senate Re-Election Loss

Rick Santorum, the former senator who is surging in the Republican presidential race, often says he’s the only candidate in the contest “that has actually won a swing state.”

Yet six years ago, as he sought a third Senate term in Pennsylvania, Santorum proved he can also lose in such a politically competitive state -- and lose big.

Santorum’s last race -- an 18 percentage point defeat in 2006 -- raises questions about his appeal to independent voters who could help decide the national election in November, as well as to Republicans who will determine who gets the party’s nomination.

Santorum’s loss was “the largest defeat by a Republican United States senator seeking election or re-election in modern Pennsylvania history,” said G. Terry Madonna, a and public affairs professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and director of the school’s poll.

“Santorum was putting an emphasis on the cultural issues, which didn’t sit well with independent, suburban swing voters in this state,” Madonna said.

Poll Results

Opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights do have appeal in Republican primaries, and have contributed to Santorum’s recent rise. A Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll of Republican and Republican-leaning voters conducted Feb. 8-12 and released yesterday found Santorum edging out Romney for the nomination, with support from 30 percent compared with 28 percent for the former Massachusetts governor. Santorum trailed Romney by 17 points in a comparable poll a month ago.

Santorum’s 2006 loss came after he was accused by Democrats of being hypocritical for moving his family to suburban Virginia, yet still claiming a property tax deduction and tuition reimbursement in Pennsylvania. The school district where his Penn Hills home was located paid $55,000 to reimburse the online education of his children through the state’s Cyber Charter School program, according to the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette. The state repaid the district in a legal settlement after a Democratic school board member challenged the reimbursement.

It was an issue that resonated with voters and echoed charges Santorum, 53, raised when he won his initial race for the U.S. House in 1990 by attacking his opponent for having moved to Virginia and lost touch with Pennsylvanians.

‘Hypocrisy’

Bob Casey, Santorum’s 2006 Democratic opponent and the son of a former Pennsylvania governor, said at a general-election debate that “this issue is as much about hypocrisy as it is about residency.”

Casey, 51, is seeking his second term this year.

Santorum’s political image was also a factor in his unsuccessful campaign.

After starting his career as a fiscal conservative who emphasized lower taxes and government spending, Santorum had by 2006 become as well known for his opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

He caused a stir in 2003 when, during an interview with the Associated Press, he made graphic comments while discussing his views about homosexual acts. He said they were wrong, along with “other, what I would consider to be, acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships.”

“In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever, to my knowledge, included homosexuality,” Santorum said in the April 7, 2003 interview, according to a transcript released by the AP. “That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

Views on Family

Santorum had also attracted attention with his 2005 book “It Takes a Family” -- a literary rebuttal of former first lady Hillary Clinton’s book “It Takes a Village” -- in which he argued that the government should promote the family.

“The radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness,” Santorum wrote, in a passage that was interpreted by some critics as a suggestion that women shouldn’t work.

Casey used the point against Santorum in his campaign, running a television advertisement featuring a woman saying Santorum should come to her house and explain to her and her husband how they could survive on a single income. Santorum has since said his point was that society should value the time mothers spend at home as much as their time at work -- and that the same goes for fathers.

Casey also opposes abortion rights, so that issue didn’t offer a clear dividing line between the two.

Grim Political Climate

Santorum and his allies say his 2006 defeat had less to do with his personal or political liabilities and more to do with a grim environment for Republicans, suffering by association with then-President George W. Bush.

Bush’s Gallup approval rating was 36 percent, compared to 56 percent disapproval, on Election Day, amid widespread discontent about the Iraq war. When that dynamic combined with low turnout, the Republican Party suffered a half-dozen Senate losses -- and control of the chamber. Santorum lost by the largest margin, followed by Senator Mike DeWine in nearby Ohio, who was beaten by 12 points. The other Republican incumbents were defeated by margins of less than 10 percent.

“I lost an election in the worst election year for Republicans in the history of our state,” Santorum told CNN on Jan. 2.

Campaign Successes

Drew Cantor, a former aide at the Republican Conference, a Senate group that helps develop political messages, said Santorum’s victories in two House races in “heavily Democratic districts,” along with his 1994 and 2000 Senate race wins --the second in a year when Bush lost the state -- “say far more about Rick Santorum and his ability to connect with voters of all stripes than anything.”

“One race does not a record make, and every campaign Rick has waged has resulted in success other than 2006, a disastrous political cycle” for Republicans, Cantor said.

Democratic strategists argue it was Santorum himself --more than Republicans broadly -- that Pennsylvania voters repudiated.

“Some of the reasons that he’s been so popular among the conservative base are some of the same reasons he sort of wore out his welcome in Pennsylvania,” said Charlie Lyons, a Harrisburg-based former Senate aide and adviser to Casey. “The Democratic wave might have contributed to the margin of victory, but in my view, it didn’t contribute to the fact that he lost, because he started out behind and could never catch up.”

Demographic Group Losses

In the end, Santorum lost among most demographic groups except born-again or evangelical Christians, and did particularly poorly among women, who made up more than half the electorate and voted for Casey by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent for Santorum.

Yesterday’s Pew poll shows Santorum running behind President Barack Obama in a head-to-head matchup, 53 percent to 44 percent. Obama leads Romney in the poll, 52 percent to 44 percent.

“The impression that people have -- the moderate and swing voters have -- is that he’s too conservative for them, said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “In a general election, I haven’t seen any poll, anywhere that’s shown Santorum matching up well against Obama.”

That includes in his home state of Pennsylvania. A Pittsburgh Tribune-Review/WPXI-TV poll conducted Feb. 2-6 found Obama beating Santorum there, 47 percent to 43 percent.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at jdavis159@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.