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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Rick Santorum Begins His Slow Slide into Frothy Irrelevance

The sweater-vested theocrat announced Wednesday that he is making a second White House run.

by Kevin Lincoln
May 27 2015, 9:49pm

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Remembering Rick Santorum as the runner-up in the 2012 Republican presidential race is a little bit like trying to remember a strange, vaguely sinister dream. Sure, it seems real. You feel like you experienced it. But it couldn't possibly have happened, right? Do we really live in a country where a has-been "Google problem" could be one Willard Romney away from running against a sitting president? But it did, and we do.

We could again. On Wednesday morning, Santorum told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that he's "ready to do this again,"—"this" being "run for president." Tonight, he'll make a formal announcement of his candidacy, joining a field that, depending on how generous you are, includes about 250 candidates, at least 12 of who are reasonably serious people, or at least hold reasonably serious jobs.

Which begs the question: How did Santorum—a sweater-vested theocrat who lost who hadn't won an election in 12 (now 15) years, and who lost his last race, as Pennsylvania's incumbent Senator, in an embarrassing landslide—almost take the Republican presidential nomination? And could he do it again this time, in a very different race?

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Santorum's national career began in 1990, when he won a seat in the US House of Representatives, which he held until moving up to the Senate in 1994. As improbable as it may seem now, Santorum's success back then was partly attributed to his ability to convince blue-collar Rust Belt folk—including some Democrats—that he had their best interests at heart.

Santorum's time in Congress was also marked by the unabashed, borderline insane conservative rhetoric on social issues that is now his political brand. His legacy included the Santorum Amendment, an attempted addendum to No Child Left Behind that would have allowed schools to teach intelligent design alongside evolution.

But it was Santorum's comments about gays, including comparing homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia, that really put him on the map—mostly by inspiring gay columnist Dan Savage to retaliate with a revenge website, spreadingsantorum.com, which defined the senator's last name as "the frothy mixture lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex," and which was a leading Google search result for Santorum through the 2012 campaign.

Nevertheless, by the end of his second Senate term, in 2006, Santorum had become chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, making him the party's third-ranking senator. So it was all the more remarkable when Santorum was annihilated by Democrat Bob Casey Jr., in the 2006 election, suffering the worst loss by an incumbent senator in modern Pennsylvania history.

In that failed 2006 campaign, Santorum demonstrated a characteristic that's defined his whole political career: he just couldn't shut up. Instead of recognizing that voters were disenchanted with the Republican White House—and that as an incumbent, he could probably afford to be a little less forward about his love for George W. Bush, and his thoughts on porn and unborn babies—Santorum dug his own grave. He tied his foot to the cinderblock that was the sinking Bush administration and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even trying to claim, falsely, that the US had found WMDs in Iraq. He just kept on talking and talking and talking: about how evil abortion was; about how the Boston Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal was somehow a result of liberalism; about how feminism ruined the family.

"We were no great geniuses for taking him out," a Democratic strategist told Reuters after the 2006 race. "He was out there shooting his mouth off. He obviously doesn't take direction very well."

All of this would seem to be enough to ensure that Santorum would never hold political office again, let alone be elected president of the United States.

But that all changed in 2012. Barack Obama was in the White House, and the Tea Party had enervated the conservative fringe in a way that Santorum could only have dreamed of in 2006. There was now an audience for his hysterics—a Republican base that welcomed the kind of apocalyptic fervor that Santorum was peddling, and applauded his refusal to back down from even his most controversial convictions. It isn't so much that Santorum changed between losing his Senate seat and coming in second to Romney in 2012. It's that the Republican Party, and the country, changed around him.

The result was that Santorum turned into an Iowa surprise, feeding on the shift in the political climate that had taken place since his last political race. Instead of looking like a loser, he could recast himself as another conservative victim, and, alongside the new grassroots Republican movement, as a force that had arrived to correct the party's errant leftward drift.

But four years after coming in a distant second, Santorum is no longer the only one seriously working that angle. He faces much stiffer competition this time around, including at least four sitting senators, three governors, a Bush, and Mike Huckabee, Santorum's warmer, more electable evangelical twin. Early polls show Santorum running somewhere near 10 th place among his likely 2016 opponents, with about 2 percent support among Republican voters . If he's going to get any higher than that, he better have learned something in 2012, because he is no longer in the right place at the right time.

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