July 28, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Santorum Sticks With Trusted Strategist

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks with supporters Tuesday at a rally aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown as he prepares for the South Carolina primary on Saturday.

Rick Santorum spoke straight to the camera, dressed in sensible khakis, ticking off his bipartisan credentials.

In the background of the 2006 Senate ad, burly pro wrestlers in bright spandex briefs body-slammed each other against the floor of the ring while a packed crowd cheered on the fight.

"Because it makes more sense to wrestle with America's problems than with each other," Santorum said, while knocking out a fighter with his right fist, never breaking eye contact with the camera.

It was a classic one-two punch by Republican ad maker John Brabender, Santorum's longtime political guru and godfather of one of his seven children. Brabender played Santorum's consigliere on all five of his Congressional races, starting with his first House bid in 1990 and ending with his disastrous Senate re-election in 2006. Now, he's a top adviser to his White House campaign.

In Santorum's bare-bones presidential operation, Brabender's advice comes second only to the candidate's wife, Karen. It's uncommon in politics for a candidate to stick with a single media consultant for two decades, let alone when a candidate runs for president.

"I could tell they're always on the same page," said Pennsylvania GOP operative Vince Galko, who worked on Santorum's last two Senate races. "They know what the other is going to think."

Their relationship is also unique, in part, because Santorum and Brabender possess dramatically different personalities, Pennsylvania Republicans said.

Santorum loves to glad-hand throngs of voters, painting policy as a big picture to the crowds. Meanwhile, the introverted Brabender focuses on the details, fine-tuning his client's presentation down to a single word choice. One man sports colored sweater vests, while the other wears only black. Every day.

The two men bonded during their simultaneous rise in Pennsylvania Republican politics during the 1990s, starting with Santorum's first bid in 1990.

"Campaigns forge peculiar relationships," said Mike O'Connell, a Pittsburgh GOP political operative. "Somehow that one clicked. Particularly campaigns like that when nobody gave Santorum a chance."

It was almost a decade after Brabender helped future Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge win his first House race in his hometown of Erie, Pa., in 1982. And it was years before Brabender boasted a stable of Congressional clients that now includes Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), plus a firm that made more than $80 million in media buys during the last election year.

"He started off with a little Congressional campaign in northwest Pennsylvania and built it into a very successful enterprise because of his work ethic, his mindset and his creativity," Ridge said.

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