Rick Santorum swept the Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado caucuses last night. Enough ink has been spilled on Rick’s “big night,” which indeed it was, and I think the political implications are fairly obvious: it will put increasing pressure on Newt Gingrich to get out of the race to leave just one non-Romney (whereas I incorrectly predicted that the pressure would be the other way because, frankly, I didn’t see this coming).
It’s true that Mitt Romney spent no resources in Minnesota and Missouri, and he would be expected to shrug off those losses for that reason, though the magnitude of the losses was significant. After all, if Romney spent no money in those contests, then that means that he and Santorum spent similar amounts of money — leading to Santorum more than doubling Romney’s vote in Missouri (55 percent to 25 percent) with another major drubbing in Minnesota (45 percent to 17 percent, with Ron Paul taking second with 27 percent).
But as a resident of Colorado, that’s the caucus I want to talk about. I attended my local caucus, but since it’s in Boulder, there were only about 200 people there. Also, since it’s in Boulder, it is not reflective of the larger, more conservative parts of the state. That’s why the results at my caucus location had Romney just barely beating Ron Paul, with Santorum and Newt Gingrich a distant third and fourth. Like I said, not representative of more Republican areas of the state — and obviously not representative of the more conservative caucus-goers in Minnesota and Missouri.
Although Santorum’s victory in Colorado was narrower than in the other two caucus states last night, winning 40 percent to 35 percent over Romney, with Newt Gingrich taking 13 percent and Ron Paul taking 12 percent, anything other than a Romney win here is an important surprise.
Rick Santorum did have a couple of high-profile endorsements, such as from former Congressmen Tom Tancredo and Bob Schaffer. But many big guns were out for Romney, including the popular former governor Bill Owens, former Senators Hank Brown and Wayne Allard, former Congressman Bob Beauprez, and current Attorney General John Suthers.
Robo-calls featuring recorded voices of many of the above were received with annoying frequency across the state in the prior 48 hours. I got at least two robo-calls featuring Mitt Romney and two more from Ann Romney.
Furthermore, Colorado was one of the strongest early pro-Romney states during the 2008 Republican primary contest, with Romney taking 60 percent of the vote, more than tripling John McCain’s 18 percent second-place finish.
And the state Republican Party organized a live conference call (which I listened to) during which the very popular New Jersey Governor Chris Christie aggressively supported Romney as a true conservative, as most electable, and as a good person.
If there were any state in which Romney should have been a prohibitive favorite last night, it was Colorado — and yet he lost.
Perhaps the recent endorsement by the Denver Post of Romney as “right for Colorado Republicans” might have been the kiss of death, since the small number of conservatives on the editorial board there are routinely swamped by typical big-city newspaper liberals.
So, what to make of a Santorum victory?
At least in Colorado, it’s not just that Republican voters are worried that Romney isn’t a true conservative. They’re also sick and tired of “the establishment.” They’re tired of Republicans nominating the person who can claim to be “next in line”, who has diligently waited his turn, and who might lead to defeat against a beatable opponent, as we saw Bob Dole and John McCain, among others, do.
Also, as a resident of Colorado, I didn’t see or hear a single negative ad aimed at Rick Santorum, quite out of character for Romney and the Super-PAC supporting him. Maybe they were around and I missed them, but there was certainly no saturation like we saw done to Newt Gingrich in Iowa. Maybe Romney was so confident that he decided not to spend money on advertising in that way. Maybe the fact that delegates won’t actually be awarded until April meant this contest was not worth buying airtime for. Who knows? But negative ads work, whether we like them or not, and it was surprising that there were so few here.
But whatever the reason, losing Colorado should be a big wake-up call to Mitt Romney: He needs to show more passion and more principle. He has to be a better champion for conservative principles, not just technocratic “turnaround” expertise. He has to be more inspiring than his refrain of late that he “believes in America.” Heck, even Barack Obama can probably say that without his nose growing too much, just because it means so little.
Romney has tremendous organization and a lot of money behind him. But as the country gets to know the candidates better, so that messaging in a particular state just before that state’s contest becomes a less dominant factor in voters’ opinions, he will have an increasingly difficult time winning if he doesn’t become a more appealing candidate to Republican activists.
For this libertarian-leaning Republican, there is plenty not to like about Rick Santorum, not least his repeated statements that “I support the 10th Amendment, but…” with the next words being about some social issue that he wants to make a federal issue. There is, of course, plenty not to like about Mitt Romney, too, though those things are better-known than Santorum’s less-than-conservative positions. And I continue to believe that when the “mainstream” media is done with Rick Santorum, he’ll have a hard time winning anything.
But when no gloves are laid on him, he’s proven himself with last night’s results to be the last anti-Romney going through the GOP wringer. Whether he’ll survive better than Perry, Cain, Bachmann, and others is yet to be seen.
While I (and political bettors) still expect Romney to be the Republican nominee, his loss to Santorum in Colorado is, more than any prior result in this political season, a signal to me of Romney’s inherent weakness, and the remarkable change from 2008 when he ran as the conservative alternative to John McCain.
No doubt Santorum struck a nerve last night when he said ““I don’t stand up here claiming to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I am here claiming to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”
And as Rick Santorum was tossing that red meat to his Missouri audience, Mitt Romney was in Denver offering pablum about “restoring the values that have made America the greatest nation in the history of the earth,” calling for “fundamental, bold, dramatic change,” and asking supporters, with nary an ounce of passion, to “fight for the America we love because we believe in America and its Founding Principles…We have a long way to go, and I sure love this country.”
Come on, Mitt, you barely sounded sincere. The way you said “and I sure love this country” sounded as if you remembered a talking point which your consultants told you to mention every time you speak. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt that you believe in something, that you’re principled and not just a pragmatist. But you’re not making it easy. And with speeches like that, you’ll also start making me and others wonder whether you are indeed reasonably likely to beat Barack Obama. Everything Obama says is wrong, but at least he says it like he means it (his last State of the Union speech notwithstanding.)
Colorado’s caucus results should be a slap in the face to the Romney campaign, perhaps the biggest one so far. Romney’s remarks last night show that at least in the minutes after he realized he was likely to be swept in three caucuses by a semi-appealing opponent with no financial backing, Mitt still hasn’t understood why.