August 25, 2006

August 25, 2006 | Commentary on

Keystone Arkansas flashbacks

Is Santorum-Casey Hutchinson-Pryor again? Maybe, maybe not.

Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum is fighting for his political life this fall. His bid for a third term in the U.S. Senate faces considerable opposition from the Democratic nominee Bob Casey Jr., who is backed by all the political firepower a challenger could ask for. Beltway Dem have declared Pennsylvania the pivotal battleground in their drive to win back the Senate, and Casey will be able to count on virtually unlimited resources this fall.

Every poll thus far shows Santorum trailing the challenger, by deficits ranging from 5 (in the latest Keystone poll) to as much as 18 points. The good news for Santorum is that the polls of late show him as closing the gap with Casey.

How will this race shake out? Professional pundits and party spinners on both sides claim to have the answer, but the truth is, nobody knows. That said, a trip down memory lane to recall another Senate race suggests some possibilities.

Hutchinson-Pryor

In the fall of 2002 Arkansas Republican Tim Hutchinson (my boss at the time) was locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Mark Pryor. This fiercely fought contest became the most expensive political race that Arkansas had ever seen. In the end, the Democratic challenger prevailed, for reasons that are eerily similar to the problems now plaguing Santorum.

Base problem

A crucial component to Hutchinson's loss was an erosion of support among his base. After winning a House seat in 1992 and a Senate seat in 1996, Hutchinson went through a messy divorce. That and his subsequent remarriage turned off many of his evangelical backers. The "Righteous Brothers" moniker given to Hutchinson and his brother Asa when they were members of the House together, no longer seemed to fit.

Santorum, too, has a base problem. His 2004 support for his moderate Senate colleague Arlen Specter over conservative primary challenger Pat Toomey felt like a knife in the back to many Pennsylvania conservatives. With Santorum's support, Specter was able to eke out a win in the primary and retain his seat for another six years. Pennsylvania conservatives, who had long been annoyed and in many cases infuriated with Specter's antics, began to look askance at Santorum.

Favored sons
In the 2002 Arkansas race, Mark Pryor was no ordinary Democratic challenger. The Senate seat to which he aspired had been vacated by his father, David, who had served Arkansas in the U.S. House of Representatives and as governor before serving in the Senate. Indeed, David's nearly four decades (1960-1997) in elective office made the Pryor name golden in Arkansas.

Mark was not bashful about using his father's name identification for political advantage. His campaign leaned heavily on 30-second television ads showing pictures of his father and noting that he, Mark, was "my father's son."

Similarly, Bob Casey Jr., has the benefit of being a legacy candidate. Casey's father and namesake served in several elected capacities in Pennsylvania, most notably as governor. In 1992 Governor Casey achieved near iconic status when he was denied a speaking engagement at the Democratic National Convention because he was a pro-life Democrat.

Casey the Younger sells himself as a moderate Democrat like his father and is benefiting tremendously from the Casey name. Most polls show him as having very high favorable ratings and very low unfavorable ratings - a byproduct of association with the Casey name.

Closet candidates
As a legacy candidate, Mark Pryor was able to employ a stealth strategy against Tim Hutchinson. The strategy was simple: on controversial political issues, take no position or at least be as ambiguous as possible so as not to alienate potential voters. In the meantime, Pryor was content to let Hutchinson flounder as he worked feverishly to assuage his disaffected base.

The abortion issue was a perfect example of Pryor's determination not to be transparent on divisive issues. Despite having claimed he was pro-choice in an earlier Arkansas election, Pryor refused to give voters a clear idea of his stance. Instead, Pryor waxed eloquent about his refusal to be pigeonholed on the issue, determining instead to reject the "traditional labels" of pro-life and pro-choice.

The Casey campaign appears to working from the same playbook in Pennsylvania. The candidate rarely speaks publicly without being carefully scripted and has been reticent to stake out ground on divisive issues. To his credit, Casey has been clear about his pro-life position. But at the same time he appears comfortable propping up a would-be Democratic Senate that would confirm exclusively pro-choice judges. Like Pryor before him, Casey wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Also like Pryor, Casey is modeling himself as something of a New Democrat. Pryor wanted Arkansans to believe that his fealty would be pledged not to Tom Daschle, but rather to the everyday Arkansan. Casey, too, wants to sell this message, but he will likely have a tough go making it stick as more and more funding from the Chuck Schumer-led Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pours into the state.

Will history repeat itself in Pennsylvania?
The Pryor legacy-and-stealth strategy was a perfect recipe for success in the 2002 Arkansas Senate race, and Camp Casey thinks it will bring similar success this fall in Pennsylvania. They may well be right. Santorum is certainly running uphill, but there are reasons to believe that history, although informative, will not repeat itself in Pennsylvania.

Perhaps the brightest spot for Santorum comes from an unlikely source: the polls. Santorum supporters have known all along that Casey's candidacy was formidable. As such, there has been an expectation that Santorum would trail badly in the polls for most of the fall. Some insiders set the bar low, expecting not even to break into single digits until after Labor Day. But the most recent Pennsylvania polls show Santorum narrowing the gap to within five points, well before the Labor Day holiday.

Santorum's closing speed is buttressed by his leadership connections, an advantage that Hutchinson did not enjoy. Being the third ranking member of Senate leadership has its perks, not least of which is the ability to raise money and to raise it fast. So awash in contributions is the Santorum campaign that they have already gone on the air with advertisements that seek to define the candidate by touting the accomplishments of his 12-year Senate career. Santorum's campaign insiders consider this early ad blitz to have been a success, and recent polling seem to confirm this assessment.

Another Santorum benefit in this race is a foreign-policy portfolio that appears to be maturing at the exact right time. Santorum's hawkishness on the war is considered by many a detriment, but don't tell him that. As he crisscrosses the state in these late summer months, Santorum keeps talking about the war against terrorists and Islamofacism and how it contributes to our national security and the stability of the world in general.

Recently, Santorum delivered a major policy address at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. In the speech Santorum told the audience that the struggle in which we are currently involved is in fact a world war, "which at its heart is just like the previous three global struggles." Later in that speech Santorum zeroed in on Iran as being a primary culprit and instigator of Middle East unrest.

Having long been a proponent of a hard line towards Iran that includes at the least sanctions and the broadcasting of an American message of support for Iran's underground regime-change movement, Santorum is positioned to be an authority on the most pressing issues facing our country today. This position may assuage his base problem, as conservatives who were disheartened by his support of Specter cannot help but admire his moral clarity with respect to America's enemies and place within the world.

Will this be enough for Santorum to overcome the fate that befell fellow Republican Tim Hutchinson? Perhaps it will, perhaps it won't…but one thing is certain: the advantages Santorum has can only help.

Tim Chapman is the Director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation and a contributor to Townhall.com's Capitol Report. 

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First appeared in the National Review Online