Santorum Facing Democratic Fire

Posted July 18, 2005 at 6:46pm

Before most people had poured their second cup of coffee Monday morning, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee already had sent its third news release of the day questioning Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) fitness to hold office.

The Senate Democrats’ fundraising and political arm rapped Santorum for his record on veterans’ funding, comments about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and his thoughts on the American family.

For the DSCC, it was a political hat trick — and Democrats vow it will continue until Election Day 2006.

Much in the same way Republicans focused their energy on defeating Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004, Democrats vow to do everything they can to deny Santorum — a frequent and vocal critic of Daschle and other Senate Democrats — a third term next year.

“What is good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Phil Singer, the DSCC’s communications director. “Look, regardless of his over-the-top political attacks against Tom Daschle, Rick Santorum has succeeded in becoming the face of a Republican majority that seems to go out of its way to abuse its power at the expense of dealing with the everyday concerns facing Americans.”

The campaign committee is just one tool Democrats are using to try to discredit the Pennsylvanian, who is the third highest ranking Republican in the Senate. Democratic Senators are also using floor speeches to call into question Santorum’s Senate record and even his personal beliefs.

Last month, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) placed in the Congressional Record Santorum’s voting record on veteran’s issues and suggested that the Pennsylvania Senator’s desire to increase funding for veterans was directly linked to his re-election bid.

“Now with an election cycle upon us, he supports, under pressure, voting for veterans,” Reid charged in a June 29 floor speech. “Talk about crass politics. The junior Senator from Pennsylvania can’t run from his record. He owes the veterans more.”

Reid’s direct criticism of Santorum and the tone of his speech did not go unnoticed by colleagues. But it was last week’s sharp rebuke of Santorum by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) that has kept Capitol corridors abuzz. Kennedy pounced on Santorum for his continued defense of statements that the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston was rooted in that city’s liberal political traditions.

The Massachusetts Democrat used extraordinarily strong language in attacking Santorum, decrying his “outrageous and offensive comments, which he had the indecency to repeat yesterday.” In the process, Kennedy sparked a round of stories about the incident in local media throughout Pennsylvania.

In an interview last week, Kennedy said he called Santorum before the speech to provide him the opportunity to come to the floor to defend his remarks.

“That’s the way we always used to do it,” Kennedy said, citing traditions of decorum that seem to be vanishing in the once clubby Senate. “Then I waited around [after his speech] to see if he was going to come down.”

Santorum never did come to the floor — nor did any other Senate Republican — to strike up a defense, although the Pennsylvanian later attacked Kennedy’s questioning of his Catholicism during an interview with reporters.

Santorum brushed off the Democratic Party’s ramped up effort to target his re-election bid.

“I don’t worry about what folks down here do,” Santorum said in an interview last week. “I am focused on doing my job for the folks of Pennsylvania. I spend a lot of time back home … and work hard back home and I think that will pay off in the long run.”

Democrats, though, claim Santorum has been weakened by self-inflicted wounds — namely statements about homosexuality, the the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal and his views on morality. And Democrats acknowledge that they will not give Santorum a pass for any comment he makes that they fundamentally disagree with.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said that Santorum had made himself a target for the past decade and that he would continue to do so in the next 16 months.

“These things have happened at Sen. Santorum’s invitation,” said Dorgan, one of Daschle’s closest friends. “He’s invited this by his comments and his actions.”

“The bottom line is, when Santorum makes a statement that’s wrong, people will always challenge it,” added Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the DSCC.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said the Democratic attacks on Santorum are one of the main examples of how relations between the two parties have “deteriorated around here.”

“It seems to me it is a no-holds-barred, gloves-off set of attacks on a man who really is very straightforward about his beliefs, very honest, very tough and a very good Senator,” Hatch said. “It is one of the things that has lead to the deterioration of comity in the Senate. It has bothered me greatly.”

As for the prospects of defeating Santorum, who has never lost a Congressional election, Democratic operatives point to a recent poll conducted by Quinnipiac University that shows Santorum trailing his likely general election opponent, state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., 50 percent to 39 percent.

But Santorum said the poll actually is a positive for him, noting that support for his re-election is 45 percent, or 11 points higher than it was in July 1999 when a poll was conducted at a similar point in the race.

“It was a pretty good poll, I thought,” Santorum said in the interview. “How many members have a 45 percent re-elect?”

The Pennsylvanian said many people inside the Beltway don’t understand the dynamics of the race, specifically that he is running against a storied name, not a person with a long political résumé. Casey’s late father served as governor of Pennsylvania and was liked and respected throughout the state.

“What people don’t realize in this town is that I am running against the best political name in Pennsylvania, and nobody knows him,” Santorum said. “But everybody knows the name and likes the name.”

The elder Casey “was a very popular guy and heroic figure and someone I worked with,” Santorum added. The former governor, like Santorum, was anti-abortion, as is the younger Casey. Casey Jr. was state auditor for eight years before winning the treasurer’s race last year, and 2006 marks the fifth time in the past six election cycles he’s run statewide.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) said he doesn’t think the Democratic attacks in Washington are going to resonate with Pennsylvania voters, who have come to appreciate Santorum for his straight-talking style.

“Rick is very upfront with who he is,” Coleman said. “He isn’t playing one game at home and one game in D.C. He is who he is and he is pretty straightforward about that. That is one thing people respect about him.”

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) warned that Senators who make strong statements better be prepared to take their hits from the other side of the aisle, whether or not the controversial statements are said on the chamber floor.

“I went through the same thing,” Durbin said.

The Illinois Democrat was forced into an emotional apology on the floor last month after his comments comparing the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to those in Soviet gulags or Nazi prison camps, which sparked almost a week’s worth of denunciations from Senate Republicans both in press releases and floor speeches — exactly the sort of attacks that the GOP used so effectively against Daschle in the early part of this decade.

If a Senator is going to say something controversial, he will have to face the heat, Durbin said. “It’s not unusual for them to be discussed by a number of colleagues on the floor,” he said.

Santorum said the Democratic strategy is to “attack anything” that is connected to him, including his children, but he predicted that such tactics would eventually backfire on his opponents.

“The people of Pennsylvania know what I am doing,” Santorum said. “They know how hard I work and they know what I believe in and I stand up for their interests. You want to have someone like me in the foxhole with you when things get tough. And Pennsylvania is in a foxhole now.”