The Romney Alternative

by Hunter Baker

As one CNN reporter said, “What happened in Vegas, stayed in Vegas.” Romney’s big win in Nevada didn’t carry over far into Tuesday’s contests.

The evening was clearly all about Rick Santorum. I had an inkling things might go his way when my 95-year-old grandmother (typically a Democrat voter) told me early in the evening that she was rooting for that nice young man from Pennsylvania.

Events cohered nicely for the former senator. The combination of the Obama administration’s recent assault on religious freedom by requiring Catholic institutions to provide birth control in their health plans and the kerfuffle between the Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood worked together perfectly to draw voters to a candidate like Santorum whose credentials as a pro-lifer are solid platinum. It probably didn’t hurt that the Ninth Circuit reversed Proposition 8 earlier in the day, either.

The fact that Santorum prevailed in Minnesota as well as in Missouri is extremely important. Had his victory been confined to Missouri, Romney and Gingrich could have attributed it to the fluke of Gingrich not being on the ballot. The win in Minnesota head to head with both Gingrich and Romney shows that Santorum may finally be emerging as the Romney alternative. Certainly, pressure on Gingrich to drop out should mount and his poll numbers in races to come should suffer somewhat as more voters move over to Santorum.

There is a silver lining here for Gingrich. If he really wants revenge on Romney for the savaging the front-runner dealt him prior to the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, he could have it by dropping out and forcing Romney to face Santorum as the conservative standard-bearer.

Finally, the night’s results highlight Romney’s status as one of the weakest establishment GOP choices ever. His predecessors have been the elder Bush, Robert Dole, the younger Bush, and John McCain. All of the above had stronger political resumes than Romney’s single gubernatorial term. Though he has had the traditional financial advantage, he is having tremendous difficulty putting away the competition and may well lose if the herd thins rapidly enough.

One thing is for sure. Santorum has taken his sweater vest farther than Lamar Alexander ever got with the flannel lumberjack shirt.

— Hunter Baker is an associate professor of political science at Union University and author of The End of Secularism.