Washington, DC – While the news from Iraq, rising gas prices and Hurricane Katrina are all high profile world and national events contributing to President Bush’s dip in the polls, another political drama has unfolded over the spring and summer in Pennsylvania: day by day, week by week, and month by month, incumbent GOP Senator Rick Santorum has been sinking in electoral quicksand.
Through a combination of bad political judgment, inept news management, and the failure to articulate a coherent rationale for his reelection, Santorum has made a tough re-election against State Treasurer Bob Casey still more difficult.
To be sure, Santorum and his campaign staff are dealing with a problematic in-state generic political environment that would be cause for concern even if running a flawless campaign. But despite a robust, successful fundraising effort, Santorum has spent the entire summer on the run and on the defensive – largely of his own making.
Columnist Robert Novak, recently noting the “negative political fallout” from Santorum’s new book, It Takes a Family, summed up the situation by recently reporting, “Republican insiders in Washington fear that Sen. Rick Santorum… is in serious danger of losing his seat next year to his Democratic challenger because of a poorly planned and ill-conceived campaign.” And after debating himself in the media for the better part of the summer as to his presidential aspirations, the Senator and his campaign are coming to terms with polling data, from a variety of sources that show Casey hovering close to or slightly above 50%, while Santorum sits between 38-42%.
A private poll conducted for a Pennsylvania business interest over the past two weeks that has not been made public has the race at 45-40%. But the poll’s internals are still troubling. Asked what they have read, seen or heard about Santorum, respondents volunteer answers such as “gay bashing,” the “anti-Hillary, anti-woman book,” “Terry Schiavo,” and other emotional, hot button topics that drive opposition intensity.
As his team looks over the political field of play, one of Santorum’s most pressing challenges will be to elevate his numbers among GOP and independent-leaning women in the Philadelphia metro area.
Leslie Gromis-Baker, widely regarded as the most seasoned GOP political organizer in Pennsylvania, says “The biggest challenge as well as the biggest opportunity for Rick is to get back southeastern Republicans who have voted Democrat in the last several statewide elections. One thing we learned in Pennsylvania from the 2004 presidential election is that a candidate can get virtually every vote west of Chester County and still lose the state if you lose the Philadelphia media market in a landslide.”
Despite the lingering unhappiness and unease among Republicans about Santorum’s chances, there is finally a sense the campaign is attempting to turn the corner, and understands “the urgent need to recalibrate,” as one DC-based GOP pollster gingerly put it.
The campaign is, in fact, staffing up and has hired GOP operative Vince Galko, the former executive director of the state GOP, as campaign manager. Philadelphia-based GOP consultant Jeff Jubelirer expressed satisfaction with Santorum’s hiring of Galko, and predicts the former executive director of the state GOP will quickly bring order and discipline to the campaign. “The good news is that Vince is now aboard, and he has great insight, presence and is well respected.”
So, where to go from here? Besides maintaining its aggressive fundraising pace, the Santorum campaign needs to move on four key fronts:
First, provide Santorum the opportunity to spotlight his signature tax and economic positions that draw a contrast on this key front with Casey. In the process, he needs to develop the storyline and subtext that Casey is a cipher and stand-in for liberal special interests that are an impediment to economic and personal freedom. To do so, the campaign should embark upon a series of intelligent, serious, in-state and DC policy addresses that spotlight Santorum’s strengths, and generate better proactive press coverage of his record on key pocketbook issues.
Second, Santorum must do what senior Senator Arlen Specter did so effectively in his recent campaign: ensure voters understand how much Pennsylvania benefits from having a Republican in the U.S. Senate. Both Specter, who owes Santorum big time, and the Bush Administration behind the scenes, can help ratchet-up the incumbency news angle and help drive surrogate and third party validation media opportunities. Santorum has been dabbling with the “benefits of incumbency” theme all year, but now needs more juice.
Third, now is the time for in-state third parties to begin hammering Casey. The news media information flow and coverage is all anti-Santorum. Where are all of Santorum’s in-state supporters? Where is the state party? Until others step up to the plate to confront Casey – which also provides a news hook – there’s no good reason for Casey to come out of hiding.
And fourth, from a press management standpoint, Santorum must make himself less available to the media. He’s always responding to reporters, events and circumstances — not systematically driving any agenda. Santorum backers attribute his bad press to the fact he “tells it like it is” and voters appreciate the directness. Not exactly. He can still tell it like it is — but not as frequently, and more selectively in a topical context. The Senator and his campaign staff need to practice a more disciplined, sophisticated news management strategy that provides accessibility, yet does so in more controlled environments.
In general, Pennsylvania GOP operatives are more optimistic than their GOP colleagues inside the beltway, and believe there is a wild card yet to be introduced into the mix. Casey, it is said, is an empty suit and poor campaigner who lacks substance and has no policy depth when it comes to debating weighty national and international issues. And despite being ridiculed and having absorbed unanswered blows for months, several supporters point out that Santorum’s public demeanor is remarkably sunny and cheerful. It remains to be seen, they say, how Casey will handle the big league combat in what will surely be the toughest Senate contest of the entire 2006 cycle.
As one Harrisburg lobbyist coolly observed, “Santorum needs to make Casey an unacceptable alternative — which may be the easiest thing to accomplish. And he has a year and plenty of cash to accomplish this, if he’s willing to do it.”
From a full disclosure standpoint, Gordon Hensley is a contributor to Santorum’s 2006 reelection campaign.