In the summer of 1990, in the throes of his first campaign for public office, Rick Santorum married Karen Garver.
During the ceremony in the Heinz Chapel, an interdenominational neo-Gothic church on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, the priest was reported to have said in his benediction, “Today, we pray for good luck, fertility, and enough votes to win on Election Day."
It was a fitting beginning to the Santorums’ marriage, coinciding as it did with the start of his public life. Friends and family say that the union has profoundly shaped the politician Rick Santorum has become over the course of 22 years. Moreover, both Rick and Karen Santorum have undergone remarkable transformations—both politically and personally—in that time.
Not many who grew up in the scrubby suburban town of Butler, Pa., would have predicted a high-flying political career for the middle Santorum child. Back then, sports were his main concern and politics was very rarely discussed around the dinner table. “We were the most apolitical family growing up,” said Dan Santorum, Rick’s younger brother, now the head of a trade group for tennis coaches in Hilton Head, S.C. “We never talked about it. We didn’t know whether my parents were Republicans or Democrats.”
But there were some things that were sacred in the Santorum household. Church on Sundays and monthly excursions to see Santorum’s grandparents two hours away. They gathered for classic Italian dinners and spent afternoons in the fall picking grapes from the arbor in the backyard.
An Italian immigrant who labored in the coal mines in southwestern Pennsylvania until he was in his 70s, Santorum’s grandfather looms large in the narrative of his presidential campaign. A coal miner, his grandfather was also the treasurer of a union and fought for workers’ rights.
Santorum got his first taste of politics as an undergraduate at Penn State in the late 1970s, working for John Heinz's Senate campaign as part of a requirement for a class.
“He was very open, very brash, very dynamic, and he had a very good natural political sense, and he was a perfect guy I thought to motivate relatively apathetic students,” said Phil English, a former congressman from Pennsylvania who showed up at Santorum’s dorm room door in 1977 to try to convince him to resurrect the Penn State chapter of the College Republicans. “Santorum was interested in the Republican Party; he was very interested in politics. He was not an ideologue.”
Mark Podvia, who attended Dickinson Law School with Santorum in the 1980s, also remembers him as a serious, ambitious young man who wore a suit and tie to class almost every day in order to be prepared for his job as an aide to state Sen. J. Doyle Corman, a Republican legislator in favor of abortion rights. Although Podvia, an associate law librarian at Penn State Law School, said that while it was clear Santorum harbored conservative leanings, he remembers no animated conversations about social issues.
“I think some of the things that you would more readily attach to him for the last 10 years came about from 1990,” said William Green, a political consultant who worked in the statehouse with Santorum and has remained friends with him. “He wasn’t married then either.”
After graduating from law school, Santorum landed a job at the prestigious law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. There, he met Karen Garver, a law student being recruited by the firm for a summer internship. Like Santorum, Garver had grown up in a devout Catholic family in Pittsburgh. But at the time, she was living with Tom Allen, a doctor then in his 60s who had delivered her as an infant, but performed abortions in Pittsburgh.
Santorum has candidly said that he and Karen had “wandered off the path” before they met, but that their relationship—and the soul-searching they did as a couple afterward—brought them back to their faith.
“I always said that Karen’s mom and dad and my mom and dad planted the seed,” Santorum told The Washington Post in 2005. “And it took a long time to germinate. And it was one of those things where maybe we were the sun in each other’s lives that caused the seed to germinate.”
Still, at the outset of their courtship and marriage, they were not the fierce culture warriors they are today. In his first race for the House in 1990, Santorum had the political acumen to seek support from the Christian right, which was beginning to become a force nationally, but the religious Right’s issues weren’t central to his first campaign. In a district located in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and full of blue-collar workers, Santorum challenged incumbent Democratic Rep. Doug Walgren by fashioning himself as a “progressive conservative” and taking middle-of-the-road stances, even on abortion rights.
“His message had less to do with cultural conservatism than it had to do economic opportunity and government reform,” English recalled. “In his first race, he was getting union endorsements.”
But over the course of his congressional career, first in the House and then in the Senate, Santorum slowly adopted more uncompromising stands on the most divisive issues, from gay marriage to abortion rights to the role of religion in government. And those are the issues that came to define his presidential campaign.
Some who knew Santorum saw a shrewd political calculation in his evolution, aimed at currying favor with the evangelical and religious wing of the Republican Party. Friends and supporters counter that life experiences—many of them rooted in raising his family of seven children with Karen—have naturally made him the politician he is today.
Particularly influential was the loss of their son, Gabriel, in 1996. Born prematurely, he died two hours after birth, at the same time that the debate over partial-birth abortion was raging in the Senate. Santorum became one of the most passionate and vocal opponents of the procedure.
“It makes you stronger in your faith and brings you closer together when you have a tragedy like that,” Dan Santorum said. “It gives you just a stronger will.”
Jeff Coleman, who worked briefly in Santorum’s congressional office and remains an ally, said it was always clear that his marriage and his faith were his first priorities. That meant working his schedule around around Sunday Mass and home-schooling sessions, Coleman said, and taking precautions to protect his marriage. For example, Santorum would not meet behind closed doors with a female staff member alone. “It’s obvious that their faith has deepened together tremendously and out of that faith has come this joint sense of mission and responsibility,” Coleman said.
Many point out, too, that if Santorum was looking to do the politically expedient thing, he would avoid some of the social issues that tended to knock him off message at various points in the campaign and in his career. “Sometimes there would be things he would say that you kind of cringe at, and I know staff would say ‘Jesus, Rick!’ ” Green said. “But that’s him, and you’re not going to change him, and you kind of wish sometimes it was massaged a little bit.”
The sense of righteous purpose that Rick and Karen Santorum infuse into their politics is what makes them attractive to social conservatives—and completely unpalatable to other voters.
“The best way to put it in terms of Rick and Karen’s marriage, it is what has helped him be the authentic candidate and politician that he is,” said Michael Geer, president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, who has known Santorum since shortly after he was elected to Congress. “He is who he says he is.”