By Nick DAngelo
In 1994, an election year ripe for Republican gains, there were two hotly contested Senate races occurring in the Northeast. One was in Massachusetts. The other was in Pennsylvania. Both matched relative political newcomers against political juggernauts. In Pennsylvania, Congressman Rick Santorum was 32 years the junior of Senator Harris Wolford. Businessman Mitt Romney was seen as a long shot to dethroning the Bay State’s liberal lion Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
During those contentious races, both in typically blue, pro-labor states, Romney adjusted his messaging to portray himself as an independent and a critic of the Reagan presidency. A 2007 Tampa Bay Times article reflected on the 1994 campaign during Romney’s first presidential campaign, saying, “Romney tried to put some distance between himself and Reagan in his 1994 race with Kennedy. During a televised debate with Kennedy that October, he rebutted Kennedy’s effort to link him to the former president: ‘I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush,’ he said. ‘I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush.’” Despite spending $7 million of his personal fortune, and forcing Kennedy to take out a second mortgage on his Virginia home, Romney lost by double-digits.
On the contrary, Santorum embraced an unorthodox strategy of hard conservatism. He took far-right stances on abortion, gay rights and affirmative action, even polarizing the largely moderate Pennsylvania Republican Party. Instead of focusing on massive fundraising, Santorum ran a powerful grassroots campaign based on local activism. He won his race by 10 percentage points.
The point is, 1994 defined these two men, now the central challengers for the Republican nomination. It showed us that Mitt Romney is solely political, and eager to be elected, even if it means constant and massive policy shifts. It also demonstrates that Rick Santorum is a true believer in his conservative philosophy, regardless of its popularity among voters. 2012 is 1994 all over again.
Last week I wrote that Romney had a lock on the nomination. I was wrong. Santorum has once again stunned political observers with an aggressive grassroots campaign that was able to upset the most well-financed campaign of the cycle. Pundits had written off Santorum’s Iowa surprise as a fluke that did not prove electability, but the power of the evangelical right. Last Tuesday night, Santorum proved that wrong by winning all three state primaries: Michigan, Minnesota and Colorado. While he is far behind in the delegate count, this is still the momentum stage of the campaign and victories can change the mathematics of the election.
Pulling off a victory in Minnesota would have constituted a good night for Santorum. In order to stay relevant, he also needed to perform well in the Missouri “beauty contest” (no delegates were awarded in Missouri). Instead though, Santorum blew expectations away. The true upset of the night came in Colorado— a state Romney won against McCain in 2008. A RealClearPolitics poll released Tuesday morning showed Romney with a comfortable ten-point lead over Santorum. Tuesday nights result was Santorum 40.3 percent, Romney 34.9 percent. The former Pennsylvania senator also took 55 percent in Missouri, carrying all 115 counties, and 44.9 percent in Minnesota, where Romney took a pathetic third.
The Romney campaign blamed their losses on Santorum spending heavily in the state. But even more likely is a 1994 do-over—Santorum was able to connect with the conservative base and develop comprehensive grassroots campaigns in all three states, spending a considerable amount of time courting Colorado. Also true to 1994, the debates made a difference. Prior to his first televised debate against Ted Kennedy, Romney was in a virtual tie with the senator. Following a lackluster debate performance, the Boston Globe showed the gap widen by 14 points. Romney is still a poor debater, with scripted and uninspiring taglines.
In a Public Policy National Poll released on Saturday, Rick Santorum took the lead for the first time. He stands at 38 percent, far outpacing Romney’s 23 percent. Even more surprising, according to new Rasmussen polls in the crucial swing states of Ohio and Florida, Santorum leads President Obama—who is besting Romney in those same polls.
The challenge for the Romney campaign is to effectively end the Santorum surge. This will be especially problematic because the campaign will be unable to use the same tactics they used on Newt Gingrich. After all, Santorum is a Pennsylvania choirboy, not a Southern philanderer. Despite Gingrich having the support of key players of the New Right, such as Rick Perry and Michael Reagan, Santorum has been able to be the chief advocate of the conservative cause.
The next, and perhaps final, test for the eventual nominee will be the crucial Michigan primary on Feb. 28. It’s a state that Romney is expected to do well in. His father served as governor for nearly a decade and his mother was a candidate for the United States Senate. He maintains a comfortable 10-point lead. But that’s what they said about Colorado.