Sept. 2, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
Roll Call

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.

In 1990, Brabender caught wind of a lawyer in his then-hometown of Pittsburgh looking to run for Congress. Republicans viewed Santorum as a long shot, and they confessed to Brabender that they were trying to talk him into running for the state House instead.

But Santorum took on seven-term Rep. Doug Walgren (D) in the competitive district, with Brabender as his chief ad man and strategist. They were outspent by a 3-to-1 margin, but Santorum eked out a 2-point win.

Two years later, Democrats redrew the Congressional boundaries with the aim of eliminating Santorum. He won again, with Brabender at his side.

"On his best day, Rick Santorum is not in sync with Pennsylvania," said Larry Ceisler, a veteran Democratic consultant in Pennsylvania. "And that's another credit in Brabender's cap. Rick won a suburban Pittsburgh district. ... That's not exactly conservative territory there."

In 1994, Santorum ran an underdog race against then-Sen. Harris Wofford, a fundraising powerhouse and White House darling, and he edged out the Democrat by a 2-point margin. In 2000, Democrats recruited then-Rep. Ron Klink to face Santorum, but the Republican defeated him handily.

Then came the big loss of 2006. After rising to become the third-ranking Senate Republican, Santorum faced a stiff re-election challenge from then-state Treasurer Bob Casey, a scion of Pennsylvania's most famous Democratic family. Brabender used every ad trick in his creative arsenal, implementing humor in the wrestling advertisement or poking fun at Casey's several subsequent different runs for offices on a billboard.

But nothing moved the numbers much, and Santorum lost re-election by a massive margin of almost 20 points.

Several years later, in the summer of 2010, Santorum came back to Brabender with another idea: a national campaign.

"He and I kicked it around for a while," Brabender recalled. "It was like, 'We just lost by 18 points. If you run for president, is anybody going to buy that?'"

But the two men believed Santorum would play well in Iowa and were hopeful he would finish in the top three in the caucuses.

"If we could, then the fact that he lost in Pennsylvania could go away," Brabender said. "And it sort of did."

Santorum battled with Romney for first place in Iowa earlier this month, coming just several votes short of victory although the final tally will not be certified until this morning. Now, with New Hampshire in the rearview mirror and South Carolina only two days away, Brabender has the biggest challenge of his career and one of his smallest budgets.

Among the GOP operative class, Brabender is known for high-quality, creative productions a potential problem for Santorum's parsimonious presidential campaign. He's also famous for nailing negative ads by being funny.

"The way he does it, it's often with humor, and it's often with more imaginative types of ads than some of his colleagues put together," said Mark Holman, Ridge's longtime confidant and former chief of staff.

Brabender hasn't had the opportunity to do much of either yet on Santorum's campaign.

The campaign spent $30,000 on advertisements in Iowa and chump change on spots in New Hampshire. It has reserved $1.5 million in ads through the end of the week in South Carolina.

That's a fraction of the $9 million that Santorum spent on TV in his 2006 re-election campaign.

Tight finances forced Brabender to channel his creative work into Web ads last summer.

For example, he depicted Santorum's two-week family vacation through Iowa last summer as "2,500 miles, in 19 days, with seven kids and two minivans, and 1,362 'Are we there yets?'" He also created a remake of a Santorum spot from his 2000 campaign with VH1 style pop-up information tabs.

Yet that breakthrough advertisement remains elusive in Santorum's presidential cannon of political ads.

But it's coming, Brabender warned. "In some senses, [Santorum] fits what I really do best," he said. "What drives innovation for a media consultant is having clients that allow it."

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