Score one split-decision victory for Rick Santorum. The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, long admired in the evangelical community, failed to receive the endorsement of the Iowa-based social conservative group the Family Leader, which unexpectedly announced on Tuesday that it would remain neutral in the GOP presidential primary. But he did receive the support of its leader, Bob Vander Plaats, who said he is personally endorsing Santorum.
In a sense, Tuesday’s news was also a victory for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, arguably two of Iowa’s front-runners. They’ve polled well in the state despite holding little appeal for many evangelicals. Romney is viewed with suspicion because of his Mormon faith and because of his past deviations on abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Paul fares little better with them because of his libertarian bent. But neither candidate commands sufficient support in Iowa to fend off a candidate able to consolidate the large evangelical vote, which exit polls in 2008 showed to be about 60 percent of the GOP caucus total. Romney learned that the hard way four years ago, when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee zoomed past him to victory in Iowa.
The biggest loser of the day was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He had once seemed the least likely Republican contender to receive support from church-goers because of his well-known previous marital indiscretions. But Gingrich, who spoke openly about what he called his past mistakes, worked tirelessly to win them over. He also tried to build a bridge to Iowa evangelical voters last year by sinking $150,000 from one of his nonprofits into a successful campaign spearheaded by Vander Plaats to oust three state Supreme Court justices, who were targeted after the high court struck down a state ban on same-sex marriage.
Gingrich was one of four candidates considered for an endorsement by the Family Leader, along with Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And it would have gone far to inoculate him from charges that the twice-divorced Gingrich does not share the cultural values of most evangelicals. Losing the endorsement is particularly problematic for Gingrich at a time when a barrage of negative television TV ads aimed at him appear to be cutting into his in-state poll numbers.
Tuesday’s news also dealt a blow to Perry and Bachmann, both of whom have assiduously courted the evangelical community and badly needed good news to help their faltering campaigns.
Vander Plaats’ blessing gives the underfunded Santorum a much-needed momentum boost two weeks before the Jan. 3 caucus, distinguishing him as a destination for conservative voters reluctant to support Romney, Paul, or Gingrich. Santorum’s sharp culturally conservative positions are well-matched to the attitudes of Iowa’s evangelical-heavy base, which is one reason some knowledgeable observers consider him a dark-horse candidate. But he has struggled to attract attention despite running an aggressive, retail-oriented campaign in the state.
The support of Vander Plaats, Mike Huckabee’s Iowa state chair when he won the caucus four years ago and a former candidate for governor, sends a strong signal to those voters that they should take a close look at the former senator, who also received the support of social conservative Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center. Rep. Steve King, an influential Iowa conservative, said that the endorsement “helps separate” Santorum from the GOP pack. “That’s important for Rick Santorum,” King said. “There’s no question that’s good for Rick Santorum.”
The candidate himself was practically gleeful.
“If their work on behalf of Gov. Huckabee four years ago is any indication, I have no doubt they will be a terrific catalyst for our campaign as we continue building momentum in Iowa,” Santorum said in a statement. “Now is the time for conservatives to unite so we can defeat Barack Obama.”
Still, Tuesday’s endorsement was only the second-best outcome for Santorum. The Family Leader’s indecision removes luster from Vander Plaats’ support and serves as a reminder that the evangelical community remains divided over a candidate. Unlike in 2008, when religious conservatives carried Huckabee to victory, social conservatives are trying to decide among several candidates they strongly identify with.
As Perry said when asked about the Family Leader decision, “You got a number of really serious conservatives in the race, both social and fiscal conservatives and Rick Santorum and Michele and myself, and I was not surprised at all that they stayed neutral.”
Shane Goldmacher, Rebecca Kaplan, and Rodney Hawkins contributed