Karen Heller: Your votes have already counted, Pennsylvania

Rick Santorum is still on the ballot for Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, but the voters have already spoken.
Rick Santorum is still on the ballot for Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, but the voters have already spoken. (JAE C. HONG / AP, File)
Posted: April 22, 2012

Pennsylvanians, give yourselves a hearty pat on the back! You may believe Tuesday's primary means squat, coming many moons after the Iowa caucus, but you would be wrong. Our votes turned out to matter even before they were cast.

When histories are written of the 2012 election, the commonwealth's role earlier this month in extinguishing the presidential ambitions of recovering Pennsylvanian Rick Santorum and thereby ending the lengthy, costly, and frequently entertaining GOP circus will be duly noted.

You're welcome, America.

Mitt Romney should send flowers.

Six years ago, Pennsylvanians rendered Santorum a former senator and showed him the turnpike exit, electing Bob Casey by a punishing margin, more than 17 points. (Do you realize that Silent Bob is up for reelection and Tuesday's primary features a quintet of GOP challengers so lacking in charisma as to make Casey resemble a rock star?)

Back in 2006, Santorum lost due to widespread voter anger with the Iraq war coupled with Casey's impeccable political pedigree and moderate tendencies. Nor did it help that the senator had ceased residing in his Western Pennsylvania home, yet collected local education dollars to home-school his children in Northern Virginia.

During the intervening years, did Santorum learn from his mistakes? No, he did not. In the last month, as he drifted from economic issues - Pennsylvania voters' primary concern - to social ones, his polling numbers sank precipitously, and the commonwealth was primed to reject him once again.

"For Santorum, the stakes were huge had he lost the state, and destroyed any rationale for him to run in 2016," says Franklin and Marshall's Terry Madonna, a nonpartisan pollster whom the candidate dismissed as a "Democratic hack" when he showed the candidate's numbers sliding south.

A week and a half later, Santorum ended his presidential run, citing the health of his 3-year-old daughter, who had been hospitalized for the second time this year. "Just like it was when we decided to get into this race," he said, "we were very concerned about our role of being the best parents we possibly could to our kids."

Bella was born with the grave genetic and frequently fatal disorder Trisomy 18. Less than 10 percent of such babies survive past their first birthday. Indeed, Santorum credited her disease as being one of the inspirations for his campaign.

What he didn't mention was that he had failed to grow his base beyond conservatives and was in serious danger of losing here again - political suicide for the near and distant future.

Santorum is of Pennsylvania, but not Pennsylvanian enough. He's registered here and in Virginia, though a spokesman told USA Today "he obviously votes in Virginia and would never vote in two places."

Santorum's state problems weren't his conservative views but his skewed campaign priorities. "We have major conservatives in Pennsylvania," Madonna says. "Both U.S. senators and our governor are pro-life, and they swept most suburbs. The truth is suburban voters don't much care about social issues."

The candidate couldn't help speaking his mind, delivering pronounced opinions about birth control, women in combat, the Obamas' religious beliefs, while most voters want to talk jobs, taxes, and the economy. The opinion pieces Santorum wrote for The Inquirer revealed two obsessions: Iran and abortion. Who knows what would have happened had he ever discovered evidence of Iranian abortions.

This Tuesday, Santorum will be on the ballot in his former home state. Our primary is so late, it tends not to matter. This year it did, even with low voter turnout projected for both parties. Santorum has left the campaign but not the national political landscape. He's primed to become the voice of American conservatism, the next Sarah Palin, a likely television constant as he plots 2016.

If you're grateful that the Republican mudslinging appears to be over, why, thank yourselves.


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or follow @kheller on Twitter.

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