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'Tough on Terror' Fails to Re-Elect Santorum

November 9, 2006 By:
Geoffrey W. Melada JE Feature
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Republican Sen. Rick Santorum works the phones the morning of Election Day, right along with his campaign staff.

PITTSBURGH

You might not have known that Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the two-term Republican incumbent, was fighting for his political life when he strode into the Crafton Volunteer Fire Company for a rally on the eve of Election Day.

The 48-year-old Pittsburgh-area native -- followed by his wife Karen and their six young children -- looked casual in a brown tweed jacket, sans tie, and certainly sounded upbeat, telling Larry King, via satellite hookup: "We feel a tremendous amount of momentum, energy on the ground. We definitely have the momentum here. We are going to surprise a lot of people tomorrow night."

Here in this fire station west of Pittsburgh, the crowd of more than 100 Santorum supporters saw a different man than the one who appeared on Pittsburgh's KDKA TV station last month for an hourlong debate with Democratic challenger Bob Casey.

That debate had barely begun before the sitting senator lost his composure, pointing in his opponent's face, trampling on his opponent's words and ignoring the moderator's pleas for order. State Treasurer Casey called Santorum a "desperate campaigner," a label that seemed oddly incongruous for the man once called the rising star of the Republican Party.

As the chair of the Senate Republican Conference -- a post to which his colleagues elected him -- Santorum was the third ranking member of the Senate. From this lofty position, many inside the Beltway believed that Santorum was poised to make a run for the presidency in the not-too-distant future.

But by fall, almost every poll showed Santorum trailing his challenger by double digits. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on Tuesday night, while Santorum received some $2 million in pro-Israel money, Casey received substantially more support from Jewish backers. Even more curious to some (and certainly, to the senator), Santorum was being bested by a lackluster campaign.

In the Pittsburgh debate and in virtually every press interview Santorum did afterward, the senator fumed that Casey was devoid of specific plans, dependent on vaporous talking points from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (such as "new course" and "new direction"), and running for the sake of "a new office and another title."

Others made similar observations. "Literally, Casey is an empty suit," said Andrew Dlinn of Pittsburgh's Republican Committee. "Santorum is very frustrated that he is fighting for his political life against a nothing. The people on Casey's side agree that they just don't want Santorum. Casey has absolutely nothing to offer them."

Democrats disputed that Casey had nothing to offer, but progressive voters like Jodi Hirsh, vice president of public affairs for the local branch of Planned Parenthood, weren't fully satisfied with his candidacy, either.

Although Hirsh, who is Jewish, said that she was planning on voting for Casey because his ideas on health care and worker's rights are "incomparably better than Rick's," it made her "sick" when the Democrats chose a pro-gun, anti-abortion candidate for Senate. "I couldn't disagree more with the trend to 'moderate' the Democratic Party," she stressed.

'To Fight for You'

So why did so many Pennsylvania voters -- some 60 percent -- make the same choice to support Casey and oust their senator, especially when he was accumulating clout that could benefit the state, and had remained free of the corruption or sexual impropriety charges that were sweeping through the halls of Congress of late?

Some people here said it was as simple as Santorum's address. Edith Weiser, in between games of Bingo (she was winning) at the Charles M. Morris Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, said Santorum had "no chance of winning my vote" after she learned that he was allowing the taxpayers of Penn Hills, Pa. -- an eastern suburb of Pittsburgh where he owns a home -- to pay for his children's cyber-school tuition in Virginia.

Yard signs all over the city proclaimed "Rick's rip-off," and Casey seized upon the issue in the KDKA debate, scolding the senator to "give the money back."

Santorum struggled for weeks to explain to area voters that he was entitled to that tuition money by virtue of the taxes he'd paid on his Pittsburgh home. He finally abandoned that argument the night before the election, telling cheering supporters: "You didn't elect me to live in Penn Hills. You elected me to go to Washington, D.C., to fight for you."

As effective as that line may have been, voters spoke of other grievances against the senator. Lauren Dumm, a University of Pittsburgh student from Lancaster, Pa., pointed to his 2005 book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. One passage proved "a sensitive issue personally" -- one she knows "really bothered other people."

Santorum writes: "In far too many families with young children, both parents are working, when, if they really took an honest look at the budget, they might find they don't both need to."

Many women, he adds, have told him that it is more "socially affirming to work outside the home than to give up their careers to take care of their children." Pennsylvania Democratic Party chair Rep. T.J. Rooney immediately jumped on that assertion as one that would alienate female voters.

There was also Santorum's controversial decision to fly to Florida and visit brain-damaged Terri Schiavo. "I absolutely do not regret going there," he later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I stood up for what I believe was right in defending a disabled person from being executed."

In addition to the book and the residency question, another issue weakened Santorum heading into the election.

"The main negative against him was being linked with President Bush to the unpopular Iraq war," said Pitt's Dumm. Andrew Dlinn of the Pittsburgh Republican Committee agreed, adding that voters lost the ability to separate their thoughts of Santorum and Bush, as well as Santorum and the war.

The senator, knowing this, never stopped talking about the war and terrorism on the campaign trial. He acknowledged the night before the election and during his concession speech that his warnings about the threat to Israel from Iran and the threat to the world from North Korea did not make easy, comfortable campaign slogans.

"The role of leaders is to say what people need to hear, not what they want to hear," Santorum told the firehouse crowd. "Elect me as someone willing to stand up to evil."

Some 24 hours later, though, Pennsylvanians told Santorum that they wanted change of a different kind. He conceded victory to Bob Casey, and urged his 200 supporters at Pittsburgh's Omni William Penn Hotel to congratulate the Democrat from Scranton.

Joined on a stage by his family and Pennsylvania Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett, Santorum added that he walks away "with nothing but thanks for the wonderful people of this state, for the privilege to serve for the past 12 years."

What's next for this man? He gave no clue, other than to say that he looked forward to spending time with his family. With that, Santorum quickly exited stage left, bypassing the long line of reporters who had been promised interviews.

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