Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate

Minnesota GOP caucuses offer two big stories: the rise of Santorum, the stunning collapse of Romney

Ron Paul speaks to supporters at a rally in Golden Valley Tuesday night.

It’s hard to figure which is the bigger story: the rise of Rick Santorum, or the stunning collapse of Mitt Romney.

Santorum, the guy at the end of the line in the early days of this presidential campaign, swept to an easy straw poll win at Tuesday’s Minnesota Republican Party caucuses and an even easier triumph in the non-binding Missouri primary.

“Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota,” the jubilant Santorum said at a victory celebration in St. Charles, Mo.

A few hours after he made that statement, Santorum added Colorado to his victory list, too.

But Santorum’s three victories were only half the story. The other half was Romney’s three whiffs.

For the last several days, he and his surrogates, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, had been trying to lower expectations of how they’d fare Tuesday night. But Romney fell far below even low expectations, finishing a distant third in Minnesota, behind Santorum and Ron Paul, and far behind Santorum in Missouri.

Minnesota loss ‘low point’ for Romney

As the results were coming in, the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake opined in an online piece that the Minnesota drubbing was even more incredible than the shellacking Romney was taking in Missouri.

“But for a Minnesota electorate, known for doing some pretty drastic things, the rebuke of Romney Tuesday night was right up there with being the only state to vote Democrat in the 1984 presidential election, electing former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura as its governor and electing former ‘Saturday Night Live’ star Al Franken to the Senate.

“Forget South Carolina and Missouri; Minnesota is the new low point for Romney’s 2012 campaign.”

How’d it happen?

Start with this. No one ever will give Pawlenty the nickname “Ol’ Coat Tails.”

 In 2008, Pawlenty enthusiastically supported John McCain. Romney whipped McCain by 19 points.

This time, Pawlenty was enthusiastically supporting Romney. And the beating Romney took was even more humiliating than that suffered by McCain.

 It’s hard to overstate that beating. Try looking at it this way:

Santorum defeated runner-up Ron Paul by 17 points. And Romney was 10 points behind Paul!

(For the record, Newt Gingrich also ran … finishing a dismal fourth.)

‘Pastor power’ outshines political clout

In Minnesota, Santorum proved that a GOP candidate with connections to a few pastors can carry a lot more clout than having endorsements of a few pols. (Romney also had former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and several key legislators in his corner.)

Longtime participants in caucuses at a middle school in Edina said they could sense this coming when a substantial number of young couples were showing up in the precinct meeting rooms. In many cases, those folks voted and left, without participating in the drudgery that is so much a part of the caucus system.

“We’ve always known there’s a strong Christian conservative element,” said Grant Cermak, a Paul supporter. “But voting and leaving isn’t enough. I don’t care what the pundits say on TV about tonight. It’s all about delegates. And we’re getting the delegates.”

That was the picture Paul was trying to paint, too. Winning is good, delegates are better.

Obviously, Paul knew that Minnesota was his one chance at victory Tuesday night, which explains why he was the only one of the four major candidates still in the state at the end of the day.

Santorum had made a dash through Blaine earlier on Tuesday.

Anyhow, Paul was trying to find a silver lining in finishing a distant second.

“Delegates,” Paul told cheering supporters. “That is where we do very well. … When the dust settles, I think we’ll have maxed out on delegates here.”

But, of course, in this clunky caucus system the Minnesota political parties have foisted on us, the dust isn’t going to settle until the process has muddled through a couple of more convention steps before the state conventions in May. Only then, will we know just whom Minnesota Republicans are supporting for president.

Small numbers wield big influence

For all the big national headlines Santorum received, it should not be forgotten that this outcome was determined by about 45,000 Republicans. That means about a third fewer Republicans participated this year than in the 2008 caucuses. About five times as many DFLers participated in the 2008 caucuses as GOP supporters did Tuesday night.

The tepid GOP turnout, on a night free of weather concerns, has to create angst for state Republicans at all levels because the top of the ticket can either lift, or diminish, those running for lower-level offices.

At those caucuses in Edina, for example, both state Sen. Geoff Michel and state Rep. Keith Downey made pitches to caucus-goers.

“The DFL is going to come at us hard,” Michel said. “Don’t forget about your little guys, your legislators in St. Paul.”

It’s hard to remember “the little guys” if you don’t get motivated about the big guys.

Obviously, Santorum did motivate his base, which turned out to be bigger than the highly organized Paul base.

Santorum certainly doesn’t lack for persistence. Back in August, at the Iowa Straw Poll, he was one of those almost-pathetic candidates who were seeking out reporters.

“Want to talk to me?”

But back then, nobody wanted to talk to Santorum. We all were chasing the A-listers, which included the likes of Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Gingrich, Rick Perry and, later, would also include Herman Cain.

Most of them are gone, Gingrich is fading and Santorum, who had virtually no money and little staff, keeps getting stronger — stronger than even some of his biggest Minnesota supporters thought possible.

Late last week, for example, Gary Borgendale, ministry director of the Twin Cities Christian talk radio station KKMS, talked of how he’d been stumping, from church to church for Santorum. Borgendale, who’d supported several other candidates who’d fallen by the wayside before turning to Santorum, had only mild hopes.

“I’d say interest in him is picking up,” said Borgendale, in what turned out to be classic understatement.

It will be interesting to see what this sort of success does to Santorum. Certainly, the size of the target on his chest has grown bigger with all of Tuesday’s success.

Pawlenty, and others from the Romney camp, had been trying to cut Santorum down to size in recent days, questioning whether he’s really even a conservative. Pawlenty said Santorum was “the king of pork” back when he was a Pennsylvania senator. He also said that Santorum once had supported health care mandates, a charge Santorum denied.

The attacks surely will increase.

Now, the candidates head to Maine — and Paul has high hopes of actually scoring a victory there.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply