Santorum’s win in Kansas a few days ago, followed by the victories in Mississippi and Alabama yesterday, suggests the Republican party may finally have found a candidate capable of generating actual enthusiasm.
Of the three states, Santorum’s triumph in Kansas may be the most interesting, since it underscores the collapse of the GOP’s “moderate” establishment, the political machine that has ruled the state since before Ike, often uniting with Democrats to keep liberals in power. That all began to change during Kathleen Sebelius’s two terms in the governor’s office. By the time she left for Washington, she had destroyed the credibility of the old Dem-moderate axis and paved the way for an irresistible conservative alternative. Now that the state GOP has clearly differentiated itself from the Democrats, Republican moderates, for whom Romney was a wing-nut conservative, are powerless.
Even the Wichita Eagle’s editorialist, normally a hydrophobic ranter against anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders, paused a moment to observe the Republicans’ enthusiasm:
By following Santorum’s urging Friday to “speak loudly” and give the former Pennsylvania senator a big win, Kansas ended up underscoring the hunger in the GOP base for an unequivocal conservative to challenge President Obama in November. Santorum’s unguarded emphasis on his Christian faith and pro-life values also suits many Kansans.
Santorum’s southern wins may have fit a prevailing narrative: Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi have a strong evangelical strain, and “Mormon takes Dixie” is a fairly exotic headline. In Kansas, however, it wasn’t an issue because an “unguarded emphasis” on faith doesn’t describe only evangelicals. Kansans had also seen how a government of liberal excesses makes conservative positions popular and “moderate” ones weak. But until Kansas, the common perception had been that Santorum was Mr. Base Man, a guy who might authentically represent conservative ideals but therefore couldn’t defeat Obama.
Yet in Kansas, Romney lost because Republican conservatives, who now routinely defeat Democrats and RINO “moderates” in state elections, didn’t think winning was enough. As Mary Pilcher-Cook, a conservative Catholic state senator, told me, Romney stumbled because the party wanted not just a safe candidate, but one who would use the presidency to pursue conservative policies. “One without the other,” she said, “is not good enough.”