Rick Santorum is in big trouble. He had already been on the ropes for the past year, but last week it got a lot worse. Carl Romenelli, a Green Party candidate for Senate lost — lost his last legal hope for ballot access. Not enough signatures. The Greens would have siphoned votes away from the Democrats, and now they won't.
The national press corrps is already rehearsing its soliloquies on the meaning of the loss by Senator Santorum. They are all about President Bush, Iraq, the economy, and an alleged backlash against conservatism. But, anyone who actually lives here knows what the real problem is — Rick Santorum.
Two years ago Arlen Specter, the centrist Republican and senator from Pennsylvania, was in a tough primary battle with a conservative House member named Pat Toomey. Mr. Santorum is famous for his pro-life positions. But this time he supported Mr. Specter. I was hosting a radio talk show in Mr. Santorum's home town at the time, and I too supported Mr. Specter. The anger among the pro-life base of the Republican Party was palpable. One of the interesting things about hosting a call-in show is that it's basically like spending 15 hours per week in a focus group. You get a good sense of how people feel about an issue or a person. Day after day, rage and a sense of betrayal came surging through our phone banks for months.
When something like this happens a leader has two choices — blow it off, or smooth it over. I chose the latter, explaining my reasons for supporting Mr. Specter (reasons which I still hold today). Mr. Santorum chose the former. "He just didn't want to listen to anyone, he didn't feel like he needed to explain anything either" one supporter of Mr. Toomey told me. That supporter was not just a party activist nor some block captain or precinct worker. He is a senior statesman and a very well known conservative opinion leader. In other words he's the kind of guy you are supposed to listen to if you're a Republican senator. But Rick didn't.
This was not the first time that I had heard that about the senator. In 1997 Mr. Santorum was pushing for a tax hike to finance construction of two stadiums and a convention center. I was leading the "no" vote, and Mr. Santorum and I engaged in a number of public debates. The senator often seemed irritated and genuinely mystified as to why so many of his erstwhile supporters failed to follow him in hiking taxes in order to bail-out some millionaires. I remember one debate in particular: he had been especially hostile, and afterwards a Republican County Commissioner walked up to me, looked sadly down at the floor, and told me that he was going out to the parking lot to tear the "Santorum for Senate" bumper sticker off the back of his pick-up truck. This man was a salt of the earth kind of guy, pro-taxpayer, pro-gun, and pro-life. He was the kind of guy to hold a pig roast as his annual fundraiser. He was the kind of guy who Rick should never have lost in the first place and should have fought like crazy to get back.
The biggest leadership boo-boo, however, came last year. In order to understand the magnitude of it a little history is necessary. Rick Santorum was first elected to congress as a member of the House of Representatives in 1990. It was the beginning of the crest of anti-incumbent fever, which eventually made Newt Gingrich the speaker of the House, and citizen Santorum was riding it with aplomb. I met Mr. Santorum early in this first campaign. I interviewed him on the radio. This was before the religious right had gotten to the level of influence that it had in the last few elections and Mr. Santorum did not play up his hard core pro-life views. In fact, he did not have hard core pro-life views.
We sparred over the issue of rape and incest exceptions for abortion. He was for the exceptions and I questioned his consistency. He bristled. That's not what he had come here to talk about. Back on message, Mr. Santorum declared again and again that the incumbent, Doug Walgren, was "out of touch with the district." Why? Because Mr. Walgren didn't live in Pittsburgh anymore. To me and to other media types residency seemed like a pretty thin gruel to feed a successful campaign on, but it was, nevertheless, the centerpiece. Later, after Mr. Santorum had been elected to the Senate, he quietly moved his family to Northern Virginia. Last year it was publicly disclosed that the Santorums had been schooling their children via a cyber-charter school, and that the bill was being paid by the state and by the municipality of Penn Hills. The Santorums own a home there, but they don't live in the home. Everyone sort of knew that they really lived in the D.C. area, but it had never been so explicitly discussed. At the time, I said, and still believe that the Santorums had a right to cyber-school their kids and have the bill sent to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania. But for Pete's sake, just because you have a legal right to do something doesn't make it smart.
Once again there was an explosion of taxpayer anger. Once again the Senator didn't really feel that any explanation was owed. He simply wasn't talking about the issue publicly. I had to personally appeal to him to come on my show and talk it out, emphasizing what he really should have already known — that people were REALLY angry about this matter and it wasn't going to just blow-over.
From the vantage of national politics everything gets reduced to ideology, but out here in fly-over territory politics looks different. It's not all grand ideological pronouncements and high ‘strategy.' It's much about garbage pick-up (even if it's not a federal function) and relationships. It's about kissing the right rings and sometimes kissing surfaces of even lower latitude. Leaders should know instinctively when and how much his bosses are ticked off. As I write this I find myself wondering what Rick of 1992 would say about Rick of 2006. "Jerry," he'd say wagging his finger at me, "I know the guy's problem. He doesn't live here anymore and he's grown out of touch with the people of the district."
Mr. Bowyer is the chairman of Newsmakers Leadership Group, a media company headquartered in Pennsylvania, and author of "the Bush Boom." His firm has solicited advertising from many political campaigns, including Mr. Santorum's.