In our last column Mike Young and I wrote about Rick Santorum’s loss to Bob Casey in his reelection bid in 2006. That 18-point loss has been the subject of much discussion in recent weeks. Here are some additional thoughts about that loss.
Not often mentioned is the fact that Santorum was never a big winner in his congressional elections. He won his first House term in 1990 by two points and his first Senate victory in 1994 over Harris Wofford by two points—in the best year for Republicans in the state since the 1950s. He outspent his weak Democratic opponent Ron Klink in 2000—$10.6 million to $3.4 million—but only won by 6 points, getting 53% of the vote.
Four factors played into his big loss to Casey:
1. The 2006 election took place at the height of the Iraq War, which, along with President Bush both nationally and in Pennsylvania, had become very unpopular. Santorum could not escape the wave that struck Republicans nationally as the Democrats stormed back into control of Congress for the first time since 1994. But neither could Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania, who lost by 20 points to Governor Ed Rendell seeking reelection. The Democrats won four congressional seats in the state and regained control of the state House, which they had lost in 1994.
2. Santorum’s opponent was unarguably the strongest candidate the Democrats could have run against him. Bob Casey had become the biggest vote getter in state history when he won the state treasurer’s post in 2004. Moreover, the Casey name had become one of the celebrated brand names in state politics given the popularity of his late father Governor Bob Casey. Casey’s quiet, unassuming manner compared favorably to the polarizing Santorum. Casey was out spent $17 million to $24 million, but he raised enough to be a TV force.
3. Both Casey and Santorum were pro-life, but Santorum was far more provocative and combative about it. For example, in 2003, he suggested that if the Supreme Court approved gay marriage, it would the equivalent of the Court approving polygamy, incest, and adultery. In Santorum’s book, It Takes a Family, he argued that radical feminism deterred women from remaining in the home and made work outside the family affirming. Casey and Santorum got into a series of arguments about that. Casey said women were forced to work because Santorum and the Republicans pursued policies that hurt working families. Santorum responded that Democratic spending and tax policies forced women into the work force. In the end, as part of Casey’s sweeping victory, Casey won independent swing voters, many of whom were female, in the Philly suburbs and the Lehigh Valley, proving disastrous to Santorum’s re-election prospects. Also Santorum sought election to the Senate three times; in two of them he faced pro-life candidates–in 2000 against Ron Klink and in 2006 against Casey.
4. Finally, Santorum ran into some personal situations. The first was his family residence. He owned a home in the DC suburbs and questions were raised about whether he was in fact an absentee state resident. Interestingly, he had won his first term in the House by using that argument against Democratic incumbent Doug Walgren, who had taken up residence in the DC suburbs. The residency issue hit home, no pun intended, and developed into a secondary issue. It didn’t help Santorum’s cause that his children were educated by a Pennsylvania cyber school with tuition paid for by state taxpayers. As might be expected, the Casey campaign used the issue effectively.
The overwhelming nature of the defeat can be placed in historical perspective—it was the biggest defeat by an incumbent U.S. senator in state history. Certainly, many of those factors no longer exist, nor would they automatically spell defeat for Santorum in Pennsylvania should he become the Republican presidential nominee.