POLITICS OCTOBER 24, 1994
Rick Santorum has the cut of a Sun Belt Republican. He's young (36), married (two kids), religious (Roman Catholic), non-Ivy League-educated (Penn State), a workaholic (employed full-time while in law school) and very conservative (Reaganite, 1990s vintage). Only he's running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, not Arizona. Santorum's self-characterization sounds like a description of Newt Gingrich: "aggressive, a roll-up-your-sleeves guy, an activist ... the Energizer Bunny conservative." His opponent, Democratic Senator Harris Wofford, says that Santorum, if elected, would be the most right-wing senator from Pennsylvania this century. Maybe so. Yet Santorum has at least a fifty-fifty chance of ousting Wofford on November 8.
Santorum reflects the most important trend in the 1994 campaign, aside from the Republican surge itself. Inside the GOP, Reaganism has triumphed. Bushism is dead. Republican candidates nearly everywhere are more conservative than ever, particularly in Senate races and notably in the Rust Belt. Pennsylvania has a modern tradition of electing moderate Republicans: Hugh Scott, Richard Schweiker, John Heinz and Arlen Specter as senators; Bill Scranton, Ray Shafer and Richard Thornburgh as governors. But Santorum is closer ideologically to Gingrich than to these centrists. In Ohio, Mike DeWine, likely to succeed Democrat Howard Metzenbaum, is more conservative than the last Republican senator from the state, Bob Taft Jr. In Missouri, John Ashcroft is markedly to the right of retiring GOP Senator John Danforth, whose seat he's favored to win. Spencer Abraham of Michigan and Rod Grams of Minnesota are more conservative than any Republican senator from their states in decades. "Moderate Republican senators are apoplectic about this," says Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman. Assuming Republicans win a minimum of three or four seats, moderate ranks will shrink and the Senate will be tugged even more to the right.
For Republicans to capture the Senate--seven seats required--Santorum's race is critical. Certainly Wofford is worried, acting more like a challenger than an incumbent. In a debate on "This Week with David Brinkley" on September 25, Wofford attacked, waving his arms, his voice quavering. Santorum, with a laser stare and a half-grin on his face, responded with utter calm. Wofford said Santorum, a House member from the Pittsburgh suburbs since 1990, is an obstructionist and a practitioner of "petty partisanship." Swiping a zinger from Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Wofford added, "If you took 'no' out of the English language, [Santorum] would be speechless." Santorum played along. "It's a 'no' to more government control of your lives," he said. "I'll very happily stand up here and say we don't need to pay more taxes and we don't need to give up more freedoms to Washington, D.C. I will say 'yes' to solving problems."
By early October, Wofford had aired five T.V. ads, three of them negative. Two are hardy perennials, faulting Santorum for missing congressional votes. The first said he had missed thirty-two votes this year. It was followed by a "news update" noting Santorum had missed three more. "Where was he?" the follow-up spot asked. "Flying first-class to another special-interest campaign fund-raiser." Wofford knew this because he was on the same Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia flight, sitting in coach. Wofford's chief consultant, Paul Begala, says Santorum is "running an anti-government campaign but living off the government gravy train." His parents are government employees, Begala notes. (Santorum's father is a retired Veterans Administration psychologist, his mother a nurse.) He took a government-backed student loan, a "government low-interest mortgage" and a congressional pay raise. He gets federal health insurance. Wofford, insists Santorum, "is completely focused on character assassination."
When Wofford was elected in 1991 to complete the term of John Heinz, who was killed in a helicopter crash, his campaign was different. The 68-year-old former president of Bryn Mawr College and one-time adviser to John F. Kennedy was the underdog against Thornburgh, the ex-governor and U.S. attorney general. In that race, Wofford invented the health care issue, and won with 55 percent of the vote. Then he came to Washington to get comprehensive health reform enacted. It hasn't worked out. Wofford claims the failure to pass a bill doesn't hurt him. "In 1991 I helped people discover the degree of frustration, even anger, with the lack of action on our problems, most particularly health care. Now the anger is of a different kind." He says the public is furious not at him, but at partisan bickering in Washington. In any event, he talks less about health care. The crime bill, which Santorum voted against, "becomes a defining
issue," Wofford argues.
Santorum's rise was as dramatic as Wofford's. A lawyer with Thornburgh's firm in Pittsburgh, he challenged a seemingly invulnerable incumbent. Democratic Representative Doug Walgren, in 1990. Ignored by GOP officials who thought his chances were nil, Santorum stumped relentlessly and relied on a grass-roots organization to win narrowly. In 1992 he was reapportioned into a district with 71 percent Democratic registration and again expected to lose. He won with 61 percent of the vote. In the House, Santorum became a favorite of Gingrich, the GOP whip. In his first race, Santorum had watched tapes sent by Gingrich's political action committee on strategy and issues. "They were helpful," he says. Gingrich backed Santorum for a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, then chose him to draft the Republican welfare reform plan. Like President Clinton's proposal, the Santorum bill has a two-year cutoff. But it also includes a second cutoff, denying government-created jobs to ex-welfare beneficiaries after three years.
Wofford's strategy is to isolate Santorum as an arch-conservative out of sync with Pennsylvania. "He's part of the far right wing," says Pat Ewing, Wofford's campaign manager. "He's no Thornburgh," adds Begala. Wofford stresses the issues (crime bill, family leave, extension of unemployment benefits, flood relief) on which Santorum is more conservative than Specter, the state's other senator. In another year, this strategy might have worked. But Specter, after months of trying to recruit an alternative, has thrown in with Santorum, thus certifying him as inside the political mainstream. "I gave him a big part of my organization," says Specter, whose son and former campaign manager both work for Santorum.
Still, Specter says Santorum "is not the ideal profile for a Pennsylvania candidate in 1994. My thought was we'd be better off with a pro-choice woman. Pro-choice is preferable in Pennsylvania, though not by a lot." But Teresa Heinz, widow of John Heinz, and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, plus several others, spurned Specter's appeals. What reconciled him to Santorum? "He knows I can win," Santorum says bluntly. Should Republicans control the Senate, Specter will be a powerful figure. So he's persuaded himself Santorum isn't really all that conservative. "His rhetoric and his approach is--I don't want to insult him--moderate. People have the sense he's a pretty level-headed man. I may have helped a little bit on that with my four-square support." In a tight race, a little bit goes a long way.
By Fred Barnes