Rick Santorum: His record on winning the political center (Fact Checker biography)

at 10:00 AM ET, 01/11/2012


(Evan Vucci, AP)

“I'm the only one in this race that has a track record of winning elections in tough states. I had a million more registered Democrats than Republicans, and in two statewide elections, running against very strong candidates, I was able to win the state of Pennsylvania, something a Republican hasn't done for president since 1988. And so if you look at everybody else in the field, no one has ever run as a conservative and been able to attract independents and Democrats to win.”

— Former Sen. Rick Santorum, during an interview with NBC News, Dec. 29, 2011

 

“Iowa is a tough state. Pennsylvania is tougher as far as Republicans to win. And here I am, and I went out and not just once, but twice won a heavily Democratic congressional district, not once but twice went out and won a state with a million more Democrats than Republicans.”

— Santorum, during campaign stop in Marshalltown, Iowa, Dec. 30, 2011

Santorum insists he can defeat Barack Obama in the general election, despite the fact that he polls poorly against the president in comparison with other GOP candidates. He’s banking on the notion that blue-collar voters — in particular conservative Democrats — will rally behind him in every swing state from Pennsylvania to Iowa, with the exception of Illinois, which is the president’s home state and a Democratic stronghold.

 The GOP candidate, who nearly won the Iowa caucuses, touts his record of winning elections in Pennsylvania as proof that he’ll fare well from the nation’s Rust Belt to its Breadbasket. He claims his conservative values and his plan to eliminate the corporate tax on manufacturers — an attempt to bring jobs back from overseas — will appeal to middle-class voters across the spectrum, making him the most electable candidate in the Republican field. 

 We examined Santorum’s electoral record to find out whether he’s done as well as he claims in attracting Pennsylvania’s Democrats and independents.

THE FACTS 

Santorum has won four elections in a Democrat-leaning state, mainly by courting values voters and the working class. He won his first bid for election in 1990, edging out seven-term Democratic incumbent Doug Walgren for a seat in the U.S. House with 51 percent of the vote compared to his opponent’s 49 percent.     

The upstart Republican showed political savvy and scrappy determination in his first political contest, supposedly knocking on 25,000 door — hoping to overcome a GOP registration deficit of the same size — and focusing on a pro-life agenda, while driving home the fact that Walgren had taken up residence outside the Keystone State in Virginia. The Almanac of American Politics noted that he had no help from the national Republican apparatus, which never bothered talking to him until election night. 

The freshman congressman wasted little time making his presence known on Capitol Hill. During his first term, he called for a repeal of a recent congressional pay raise, recommended new campaign-finance reforms, and proposed giving the president more budget control through the line-item veto.

 Santorum earned a resounding victory for reelection in 1992, garnering 61 percent of the vote in a newly realigned district where Democrats outnumbered Republicans 3 to 1. The Almanac of American Politics described his triumph that year as “an astonishing victory,” noting that George H.W. Bush earned only 30 percent of the vote from the same district.

During his second term, Santorum opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, a not-so-conservative move that was sure to yield positive results in the union-heavy Keystone State.

The fast-rising GOP member made a run for the Senate during the Republican Revolution of 1994, winning his race with 49 percent of the vote compared to 47 percent for liberal Democratic incumbent Harris Wofford, who asserted during his campaign that health care should be a right for all Americans. Registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 50 percent to 43 percent in Pennsylvania that year.

Voters in the Keystone State grew increasingly independent in subsequent years, with registration numbers declining slightly for both parties.

 Santorum won reelection to the Senate in 2000 by taking 52 percent of the vote, with Democrats accounting for 48 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate and Republicans comprising 42 percent.

 The incumbent senator couldn’t overcome a Democratic tidal wave in 2006, as the rival party named him as a top target for that year’s pivotal election. Santorum lost the contest to pro-life Democrat Bob Casey, who trounced him with 59 percent of the vote compared to the incumbent’s 41 percent. Pennsylvania Democrats outnumbered Republicans roughly 48 percent to 40 percent.

 The American electorate that year showed a distaste for Republican politicians in light of the party’s political-corruption scandals, its spending habits and the lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which Santorum’s opponents could connect him to in one way or another.

 It’s worth noting that Santorum had begun tacking toward the political center in the mid-2000s, perhaps out of a sense that the national zeitgeist was shifting left. He dropped an early hint of his change in 2004 by endorsing moderate Republican Arlen Spector — the senior Pennsylvania senator who later switched to the Democratic party — over conservative Pat Toomey in the GOP primary.

Santorum later softened his stance on abortion, saying he was willing to allow the procedure in some cases, but only to “make progress in limiting the other abortions.” He also supported an increase of the minimum wage and softened his position on the death penalty.

As for the candidate’s claim that Pennsylvania had one million more Democrats than Republicans when he was running for office, it isn’t correct. The largest registration deficit he ever faced came in 1994, when the state had about 500,000 more Democrats than Republicans, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

 

THE PINOCCHIO TEST

 Santorum’s track record suggests he can win support from independents and conservative Democrats, but he’s far from a sure bet in that regard. He did, after all, lose mightily to a pro-choice Democrat in his last election, and he greatly exaggerated the Republican-voter deficit he overcame — pretty much doubling the size.

The former senator’s success in wooing middle-spectrum voters has depended largely on the mood of the nation — which, to his favor, shows signs of a strong anti-incumbent sentiment these days — and his political dealings, which haven’t always been as conservative as he makes them out to be.

 Santorum earns two Pinocchios for suggesting that Republicans can count on him to win all the battleground states from Pennsylvania to Iowa. He failed once to do so once in his home state, and he has exaggerated the number of Democrats he won over during successful runs.

TWO PINOCCHIOS

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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