Things that look final sometimes aren't.
Everyone remembers the photo. The one from 2006, when Rick Santorum had to stand up and acknowledge he’d been voted out of the U.S. Senate by the people of Pennsylvania, who’d chosen Bob Casey Jr. in a landslide. While Santorum spoke, his 8-year-old daughter Sarah Maria stood next to him, her chubby cheeks soaked with tears as she bawled over her father’s loss. That image—the weepy little girl seeming to illustrate the emotional truth that lie beneath Senator Dad’s more restrained visage—quickly became an Internet meme. It was the picture of the end of the Republican Revolution that, for a decade, had ruled Congress, and thus Washington, and thus America.
But things that look final sometimes aren’t.
Take Richard Nixon. In 1962, the former vice president suffered a startling defeat for the governorship of California, a race he was widely expected to win. Nixon, seriously pissed off, summoned the news media and whined to them on camera: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” It was a humiliating moment from which a political comeback seemed impossible—and yet, six years later, Nixon was elected president of the United States.
There must be something about “six years later.” Because six years after Rick Santorum’s senatorial downfall, he emerged seemingly from nowhere as a serious dark-horse contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. And on March 24, Santorum once again stood before a home-state audience, addressing the conservative Pennsylvania Leadership Conference outside Harrisburg, no fewer than 10 Republican primary and caucus wins under his belt.
Give Santorum his due: He went straight to the hard topic.
“The last night many of you saw Sarah Maria, she was standing next to me at a podium, six years ago, holding a little baby doll that matched her own dress with tears running down her eyes,” Santorum told the crowd, his now-14-year-old daughter present and smiling. “That night was obviously a sad night in many respects … People always say, how do you feel about your loss in 2006? All I can say is the people of Pennsylvania don’t always give me what I want. But they always gave me what I needed—and for me, it was a great thing, a great gift, to get away.”
Santorum spoke for 40 minutes and then spent 20 signing autographs. Hours later, he would crush Mitt Romney in the Louisiana primary, 49 percent to 26. It was, arguably, the most triumphant moment of his campaign.
It didn’t last long. Ten days later, Romney swept two moderate states— Wisconsin and Maryland—and the District of Columbia, making it a mathematical near-impossibility for Santorum to come out atop the primary: Santorum’s then-281 delegates had him well ahead of third-place Newt Gingrich’s 135 but far behind Romney’s 658. And a week after that, on April 10, Santorum suspended his campaign, delivering a Tea Party-infused speech alongside a sad—but this time, dry-faced—family.
How did it reach this point? How did the guy we sent packing six years ago—an outspoken anti-gay crusader and a poster boy for the ’90s Republican establishment—manage to rally his political career and be taken seriously as a potential president, if even for only a few months?
And is there any reason to think he won’t be coming back for a third try?
“You can’t ever underestimate the campaign energy of Rick Santorum,” says First District congressional candidate and former Philadelphia mayoral candidate John Featherman, who ran as a Libertarian against Santorum for the Senate in 2000 and again as a Republican in 2006. “Rick Santorum could write a book. Rick Santorum is the fiercest competitor out there.”
During the Bush administration’s gung-ho early days, many predicted Santorum, a rising star and the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, would run for—and perhaps win—the presidency in 2008. But then the Republican brand became a dirty word in 2006, and it cost him his senatorial seat to a Democratic opponent who won at least in part because he wasn’t Santorum.
Santorum moved his family to Virginia and spent the next five years working high-pay consulting jobs for several firms, including the American Continental Group and CONSOL Energy. He joined the board of United Health Services and wrote a column called “The Elephant in the Room” for the Philadelphia Inquirer while moonlighting as a Fox News contributor. According to a 2011 report from ABC News, Santorum has worked for at least seven different employers simultaneously since getting the boot from public office. At the time he began running for president, his assets were valued between $1.9 and $4 million.
When he declared his official candidacy on June 6, Santorum was already perceived as a lost cause. He received minimal attention for his criss-crossing of Iowa, visiting all 99 counties in the state at one point or another. Additionally baffling was that Santorum did this with just one Dodge Ram pickup, riding with his son John and campaign aide Chuck Laudner. (He told the Pennsylvania conference that they called their ride the “Chuck truck.”) A telling chart in The New York Times compared Santorum’s on-the-trail assets to Romney’s; he had a plane, campaign bus, four aides and three staffers. Rick Perry had a press bus, campaign bus and staffers; Gingrich had a campaign bus, security team, press bus, personal aides and a Voter ID team; and Michele Bachmann had videographers, a campaign bus, social media team, an Iowa chairman, campaign strategist and spokeswoman on hand.
Throughout those county rides, Santorum held 370 town-hall events, including one in Montgomery County, Iowa, where he says just one person showed up.
Two weeks out of the first caucus, Santorum claims he heard calls to leave the race. In fact, he’d hear those calls at every point in the race, until the day of his exit. “But every town I went to, people would leave and take signs and sign up to help,” he told the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference audience. The polls didn’t reflect that, but Santorum claimed that didn’t bother him: “I always believed I wouldn’t get a bump in the polls; no one [in the media] would pay attention to us [but] conservatives would respond to a conservative message—to a vision.”
Santorum won Montgomery County on Jan. 3. In fact, he won Iowa, albeit by less than 100 votes. It’d be factors like this that Santorum would eventually laud at his concession speech, when he declared the proof of his conservative message: he’d won more counties in Iowa than the rest of the presidential candidates combined.
“He’s like the Energizer Bunny,” says Ned Greene, a veteran political strategist who in 1994 had helped run the campaign of Santorum’s opponent for the Republican Senate nomination, Joseph Watkins. “We had real trouble matching him event-for-event.” Greene says that campaign was particularly difficult because of Santorum’s ability to get close to the voter and keep them close. Santorum easily defeated Watkins, who half-heartedly endorsed Santorum thereafter.
“He’s a ferocious campaigner,” agrees Featherman. “He does a lot with very little. He’s literally like the Energizer Bunny, and that’s the one thing I’ve seen about him that I don’t think people understand. I don’t know where he gets it from. I don’t think a lot of candidates have that kind of energy.”
The hottest race in the city for a seat in the state Legislature is going down in the 182nd District, which comprises a chunk of Center City, Logan Square and sections of Fairmount, Washington Square West, Bella Vista, Gray’s Ferry and—where the campaign rhetoric is at its most intense—the Gayborhood.
From hot dog vendor to Pennsylvania state senator to ex-con to Philly mayoral challenger to ... Harrisburg again? It could happen, if ever-tenacious 72-year-old Milton Street claims victory in this odd race to fill the state House seat—encompassing a wide swath of North Philly—which Jewell Williams vacated last year to successfully run for Philadelphia sheriff.
Heading into November, yet another formidable Republican—no-nonsense Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, who’s running unopposed in next week’s primary—will try to make mincemeat out of either Kathleen Kane or Patrick Murphy, the two Democrats sparring fiercely in a primary bout to determine who’ll carry their party’s flag in the AG race this fall.