The Real Meaning of Santorum

Social conservatives are searching for a hero, and Rick Santorum’s antigay views have helped him claim the mantle of religious freedom fighter.

BY Lucas Grindley

April 09 2012 2:00 AM ET

For months before the Iowa caucus in early January, MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow had dismissed former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum as the one GOP presidential candidate who would never experience 15 minutes of glory as the front-runner. The leader status had already been conferred upon every passing non-Romney fad from Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain. But “front-runner Rick Santorum” was too absurd a notion to contemplate. Then the Iowa result was a virtual tie. Two weeks after the caucus, Santorum was declared the winner in that state by 34 votes. 

In a wave of spending that led to Romney accounting for 61% of all ads during the primary season’s first eight contests, according to a count by Kantar Media, his campaign regained the lead after back-to-back wins in Florida and Nevada. Once again the former Massachusetts governor appeared to be a lock for the nomination until Santorum shocked the political establishment by winning all three races February 7 in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. MSNBC hadn’t even staffed the night with live coverage.

“Shhh! Don’t interrupt the Republicans. Don’t make a sound,” Maddow joked days later in a mocking whisper. “They’re about to nominate Rick Santorum! Don’t move a muscle!”

Maddow, like many on the left, saw Santorum as a weak opponent against President Obama. In theory, Santorum has so remote a chance of even winning the Republican nomination for president that Markos Moulitsas called on the millions of liberals who read his influential website, Daily Kos, to vote for the antigay ex-senator. He declared the campaign to cause mayhem in open primaries “Operation Hilarity.” A vote for Santorum, Moulitsas calculated, actually meant more time for Republican infighting, and for the candidates to beat up Mitt Romney, the presumed real front runner. “I mean, Rick Santorum? Really? The Republicans have offered up this big, slow, juicy softball,” Moulitsas wrote gleefully. “Let’s have fun whacking the heck out of it.”

Moulitsas wasn’t alone in his evaluation of Santorum. Exit polls in Michigan found a larger than usual percentage of voters were Democrats, and they broke overwhelmingly for Santorum, 53%, compared with 18% for Romney. Santorum lost the popular vote so narrowly that he took half the delegates in the state where Romney was born and raised and where his father had been governor. No one predicted that the man who once compared gay sex to bestiality and pedophilia, who had lost reelection to the U.S. Senate by 18 points in 2006, would be striking fear in the monied, juggernaut Romney campaign. Many LGBT activists still doubt Santorum could ever beat Romney. What is most shocking to them aren’t his chances of winning the nomination, it’s that he can win anything at all.

“You could knock me over with a drop of Santorum. I am completely blown away by this,” says Dan Savage, the mastermind of the Google-bomb that forever redefined Rick’s last name. Like everyone else, Savage had at first dismissed Santorum’s triumph in Iowa as a chance for more moderate voters in other states to prove his views are big political losers. Instead, Santorum kept winning. His success, and by extension the success of the religious prism through which he views the world, is due to either divine intervention, dumb luck as the last candidate to get his surge, or real political support—or all three, depending on who you ask. “Whatever it is, it’s terrifying,” Savage now says.

“Oh, my God, it should absolutely scare people,” agrees Joe Solmonese, outgoing president of the Human Rights Campaign. The specter of a Santorum vice presidency was first raised by the HRC in an email to supporters after Iowa. At that time, not even the most imaginative of activists foresaw the nearly 2 million votes Santorum had pocketed by the Super Tuesday primaries, when he added Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Dakota to his total. Solmonese, who is now a cochair of the Obama reelection campaign, has since grown only more worried by Santorum and what his success already means.

“He absolutely represents people,” Solmonese says. “The problem with him is, he is true to his convictions. He means what he says, and that should give us reason to be deeply concerned and afraid about the prospect of Rick Santorum.”

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