Santorum Will Seek Whip Slot

Posted September 28, 2004 at 6:51pm

Having consulted with colleagues about a possible bid for Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has decided to focus his efforts instead on being elected the next Republican Whip when Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) retires in 2006.

Santorum’s decision to seek the Whip position averts what would likely have been a divisive, two-year leadership race pitting the Pennsylvania Republican against Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell, who has been seeking commitments from colleagues for months, is now the sole candidate for the leader post. So far, Santorum is the only announced candidate for the Whip position, which will be vacant after McConnell climbs the last step of the GOP leadership ladder.

In meeting with colleagues, Santorum said the “overwhelming” advice he received from his supporters and Senators who had already committed to McConnell was that the Whip post would be a better fit for him at this time.

“The reason I wanted to be in leadership was to serve my colleagues and [advance] what I believe in and not to attain a particular position,” Santorum said. “My colleagues have told me that is where I can best help the team, and I am excited about helping the team where I can.”

Focusing on the Whip’s job could potentially open an even bigger political door for Santorum, who is only 46 years old and acknowledged at least some interest in running for president in 2008.

The outcome of the 1996 presidential race showed that it is nearly impossible to run for the White House while also serving as the party leader. Amid pressure from Republicans, then-Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) retired from the Senate in June 1996 to focus solely on his presidential campaign after it became clear he was unable to perform both roles.

More recently, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) considered running for president, a decision he acknowledged would have required him to resign his post. Instead, Daschle chose to run for re-election this year and remains the Democratic leader.

Santorum said he was reminded of this “point … repeatedly” during his discussions with other Republican Senators.

“As I have said many times, I am not too sure that is what I want to do and what my family and I want to do anytime soon,” he said. “That is certainly one of the pluses of running for the No. 2 job instead of running for the number-one job.”

Santorum said he spoke to McConnell last week about his decision to forgo a run for leader and instead set his sights on the Whip job. Following tradition, Frist’s top two lieutenants will not join together to form a single ticket and instead will run separate leadership campaigns.

McConnell would not comment Tuesday about the 2006 leadership races.

McConnell’s efforts to lock in votes early is now being credited with convincing Santorum to shift his focus to the Whip race, several Republicans said. Santorum only began to hold private meetings with colleagues this month to express his interest in remaining in leadership beyond 2006. Republican Conference term limits will force Santorum to step down from his position as Conference chairman when the curtain falls on the 109th Congress.

By contrast, McConnell, who is eligible to remain as Whip for two more years beyond 2006, had been meeting with Senators for several months locking up their votes.

Freshman Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) said he is a “big fan” of Santorum and pledged to vote for the Pennsylvanian to take over the Whip reins in two years.

“I will support Rick,” Coleman said. “I think Rick is a great leader within our caucus and he is extremely well respected.”

Having Coleman in his corner could prove valuable for Santorum if the Minnesotan succeeds Sen. George Allen (Va.), as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee next year. Santorum will be running for re-election in the 2006 election cycle at the same time he is running for Whip.

If Coleman is in charge of the Republican Senate campaign committee, he would be the direct contact for Republicans challenging incumbent Democrats or seeking open seats. That means that Coleman could serve as a liaison between Santorum and Republicans who might be elected that year — Members who would have a vote in the leadership elections.

In addition, Santorum is expected to seek the help of his delegation-mate, leading centrist Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who will be whipping votes for him.

“I had a long discussion with Senator Santorum about his plans, and I think he would make an excellent Whip and I am delighted to support him,” Specter said. “I think I can assist him with a facet of the caucus which is more in line with my approach, and I am pleased to do it.”

While the two Pennsylvania Senators differ on many policy issues, Santorum made a point of publicly supporting Specter during a difficult primary contest this year against Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.). On many matters of policy, Santorum is actually closer to Toomey than he is to Specter.

Even though Santorum said he is being urged to focus on the Whip contest by colleagues, he stepped away from making any bold declarations that he has enough support locked up to win the leadership race.

“The idea that votes can be locked up two years-plus in advance, I think, is a lot of puffery,” Santorum said. “I am going around and talking to a lot of folks and telling them to keep their powder dry. If they want to be supportive, that is great. I will certainly accept their support. But lots of things can happen in the next two years.”

In addition to the races for GOP leader and Whip that are scheduled to take place in two years, Republicans will also elect new Senators to take over the Conference’s messaging operations.

Santorum’s position as conference chairman will be vacant, as will Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s post as Conference vice chairwoman. Hutchison, too, must step down in 2006 because of Conference term limits. She is rumored to be interested in running for governor in Texas in 2006.