Politics & Policy

Reelect Rick

A defeat for Senator Santorum would have repercussions well beyond Pennsylvania.

If you believe the political Left, Rick Santorum is public enemy No. 1. And one of their top priorities between now and November 2006 will be to try to get Pennsylvania voters to agree with them.

Republican Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania’s junior senator, usually gets coverage for supporting the federal marriage amendment and opposing abortion. Up for reelection next year, Santorum is the Democrat’s top target for the midterm election. And, barring some dramatic change in campaign events, he’s going to have a steep uphill battle. An April Quinnipiac poll had Santorum 14 points behind his likely Democratic opponent.

On their team, the Democrats are marketing a familiar face–or, at least, name. Robert Casey Jr. is son of the late Pennsylvania Democratic governor who was ostracized by his party for his vehement opposition to abortion: He wasn’t allowed to speak at the 1992 Democratic convention. Instead, the Bill Clinton convention gave speaking slots to six abortion-supporting Republican women. Casey Sr. had a tough road and never backed down.

Casey Jr., Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, is, like Santorum, a pro-life Catholic (he’s also against gay marriage but doesn’t want a constitutional debate over it). Casey Jr., the presumptive nominee for his party, is hoping that and his name carries him a lot further than it should. And it might. But that would be unfortunate. You see, they don’t make Caseys like they used to.

When Casey has spoken about the abortion issue, he doesn’t approach the Santorum record–though Democrats who worry about such things hope the “pro-life” descriptor neutralizes discussion.

A few feminist abortion groups have done a little grumbling about his position on their issue, but backed by the likes of leading Senate Democratic obstructionist Charlie Schumer of New York, Casey has made his loyalties clear. Rather than being a fresh voice, singing a “break the gridlock” kinda tone, Casey fits in lockstep with the current Democratic senatorial club.

President Bush’s judge nominee Priscilla Owen waited for confirmation for over four years, largely over a parental-notification (barring minors from getting abortions without a parent’s permission) ruling. Instead of being miffed at the unfair delay she was subject to (and others remain subject to), largely because of abortion and religion, Casey mimicked Democratic senators’ talking points. He opposed changing the filibuster rule because it “forces bipartisanship.”

But anyone who has been hearing the “nuclear” talk on Capitol Hill knows so-called forced bipartisanship doesn’t cut it.

Meanwhile, pro-life Republicans would be foolish to embrace Casey if they actually want their agenda advanced across the board, and voters looking for an independent thinker should know that Santorum doesn’t neatly fit the right-wing stereotype.

He’s done a lot of notable work beyond abortion and gay marriage that doesn’t get as much play in the media. He’s been a leader in the effort to advance religious liberty throughout the world, heading a bipartisan congressional working group involving both House and Senate members. Recent focus has been on the plight of Sudanese refugees; Iraqi Christians’ struggle as a minority; and the squelching of religion (and much else) in China and North Korea.

Believe it or not, in 2004, National Journal rated Santorum “slightly to the left of the GOP center.” He’s been a proponent of raising the minimum wage; he’s reconsidering his support of the death penalty.

At the end of the day–even though his Santorum’s style may not be your cup of tea, he’s a good guy who has risen quickly to be a party leader (at 46, he ranks third among Senate Republicans).

And to be honest: I’m a card-carrying member of the “Vast Right Wing Conspiracy” and even I don’t always agree with Santorum. National Review gave him plenty of grief during the last election cycle for supporting his colleague, Arlen Specter, a liberal Republican, in the Pennsylvania primary. I understand why Santorum did what he did–it was the collegial thing to do and there was a presidential race hanging in the balance, but I’m still a little miffed.

But it’s another election now. And the Pennsylvania Senate race is the eye of the storm in 2006. “This race is about Republican control of the Senate, not so much for control in 2006, but for 2008 and beyond,” says Cesar Conda, a former adviser to Dick Cheney. “The Left recognizes it–that’s why MoveOn.org and other Democrat 527s will be pouring millions of dollars into Pennsylvania.” A winning takedown strategy would make Santorum only the first of many.

The Pennsylvania race is about a lot more than Pennsylvania. Voters in every state would be wise to bear that in mind in the coming months as they watch the “Vast Left Wing Conspiracy” move into the Keystone state to take down the senator the media most loves to hate.

(c) 2005, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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