Almost everybody has written off Rick Santorum as a 2016 contender — everybody, that is, except Rick Santorum.
Behind the scenes, the former Pennsylvania senator is quietly preparing for another presidential run. Trips to Iowa are in the works, he’s meeting daily with his advisers, and he’s already fine-tuning his message for the early primaries.
Hints of that pitch came last Thursday during a fiery speech at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s summer conference. Santorum cast himself as a populist conservative. “When all you do is talk to people who are owners,” he warned, the GOP becomes nothing more than a social club for entrepreneurs.
For Santorum, it marked the start of his unofficial campaign. He tells me he plans to build upon his speech’s theme in the coming months, positioning himself as a conservative outsider.
“Some of the Wall Street folks have hijacked the party,” he says. “But we can’t just be a party that’s aligned with where the money comes from.”
Santorum, who started his career as a congressman from western Pennsylvania, says the Republican party has failed to connect with the voters who were the foundation of Ronald Reagan’s coalition. Too often, he says, it strains to appeal to blue bloods, rather than blue collars.
In speech after speech, he talks about how he can’t stand the power brokers from “big East Coast cities” who are trying to reshape the party. They don’t like him, either. “I wasn’t invited,” Santorum tells me, when I ask him whether he was part of Mitt Romney’s Republican retreat in Deer Valley, Utah, earlier this month.
“I’m not against entrepreneurship, and I’m not against the policies of fiscal restraint, but we’ve got to find a way to talk to people about how they can improve their lives,” he says. “If you look at my career, I’ve been able to win in Democratic towns where people work in coal mines. We’ve got to find a way to become that kind of party again, to win those towns.”
Santorum complains that the press is, naturally, ignoring his efforts to shift the GOP toward the working class. “Of course they dismiss me,” he says. “They don’t want to take me seriously.” But he believes his message will gradually win support.
“I’ve always thought that the Republican party can do well with the middle of America, with people that work hard and have a family,” he says. “They want a party that’s on their side, a party that’s economically inclusive. We’ve got to show them that we have a heart and that our policies create opportunity.”
That’s why he’s going back to Iowa in August. It’s Santorum’s first trip there since the election. He’ll headline a fundraising dinner for the Lyon County GOP and attend the state fair in Des Moines. “I can’t wait to reacquaint myself,” he says. “It’ll probably be too warm to wear a sweater vest, but I’ll have it ready in my suitcase.”
Clad in that sweater vest, Santorum rode his Rust Belt rhetoric to a surprise victory in last year’s Iowa Republican caucuses. He ended up winning ten more primary contests, giving Romney, the eventual Republican nominee, a serious headache.
Repeating that insurgency in 2016 will be difficult, but Santorum’s team is ready to give it a try. His longtime strategist, John Brabender, stays close, as does Mark Rodgers, Santorum’s former Senate chief of staff.
Back in December, Brabender hosted a Christmas party in Northern Virginia for Santorum’s inner circle that served as a reunion — and as an informal strategy session. Over drinks at the River Creek Club in Leesburg, Va., the senator’s friends and allies debated the pros and cons of another run.
By midnight, the consensus was clear: “The boss,” as his friends call him, should jump into the 2016 race, if at all possible.
For now, Santorum’s nonprofit organization, Patriot Voices, is his chief vehicle for staying in play. He’s working to develop the group into a film and educational outfit that informs voters about issues he considers important.
Brabender tells me that more than 400 chapters of Patriot Voices are being formed. Those clusters of Santorum supporters will likely be important as he maneuvers to run again.
Nadine Maenza, the finance director for his 2012 campaign, has also been keeping the senator in touch with his major donors, including Foster Friess. According to several sources, Friess, the top financier of Santorum’s super PAC, has privately said that he’ll once again be a major backer.
“The presidential election is a long way away,” Santorum says. “I know we’re not on the front burner of anybody’s mind right now, and there’s a lot going on that’s getting people’s attention. But I’m going to stay out there, and you’ll see me in Iowa soon.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.