Could Rick Santorum super PAC do more harm than good?

Rick Santorum's super PAC is keeping him competitive, especially in Michigan. But DCDecoder questions whether big money support may cost Santorum some populist appeal.

By , DCDecoder

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    Supporters listen as Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign rally in Phoenix, Ariz. February 21, 2012.
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One point being made repeatedly in the media of late is that super PACs are changing the usual dynamics of the presidential nominating process by allowing underdog Republican candidates to remain in the race. Without Sheldon Adelson’s millions, Newt Gingrich might well have been forced off the stage by now for lack of funds. The same is often said about Rick Santorum, on whose behalf the Red, White, and Blue Fund has spent more than $3 million so far. Santorum is set to speak at a fundraiser for the super PAC this Thursday in Dallas.

But Paul Goldman and Mark Rozell argue in an interesting op-ed in USA Today that in Santorum’s case, the super PAC could eventually wind up doing more harm than good. Specifically, they say that by embracing super PAC support, Santorum is blowing a big opportunity to carve out a pure - and unique - populist identity for himself in this race:

“By giving up the high ground easily attainable by going the other way — telling the Santorum Super PAC to cease and desist while calling on opponents to put the little people, not the big donors, first — the former senator dives all in to the wrong pool…. By legitimizing the growing role of hordes of mystery cash raised from the biggest special interests, Santorum gives away his best potential asset.”

Recommended: Rick Santorum: Top 7 culture war moments

Moreover, they add: 

“Whatever legitimate criticisms there might be of Sarah Palin as the mouth that roared, the former Alaska governor is the one Republican leader who gets it. The best chance the GOP has this year to defeat Obama is to nominate someone willing to “go rogue” against the GOP establishment as a prelude to challenging the Washington Establishment. You can’t take their money and then have any credibility as a reformer. And it will take a major populist reformer, not a conventional politician, to defeat the president.”

DCDecoder agrees that Santorum’s fighting-for-the-little-guy image is absolutely his best weapon in this campaign - both against Mitt Romney and, should he somehow win the nomination, against President Obama. And accepting money from a super PAC largely funded by one wealthy (and now, thanks to last week’s comments about birth control, controversial) mutual-fund magnate certainly dilutes Santorum’s “purity” in claiming to represent the little guy against entrenched elites.

Still, it’s hard to say whether Santorum would even be in this race at all without super PAC money. And while, on the one hand, the travails of the Romney campaign have delineated the limits of what big money can buy, the reach of said money has also been on breathtaking display. As The New York Times reports, the super PAC supporting Romney raised $6.6 million in January and spent close to $14 million, much of it on TV ads attacking Gingrich in Iowa and Florida. 

Santorum’s best shot at mortally wounding Romney is coming up in Michigan, which votes on Feb. 28 - and where, Politico reports, the pro-Santorum Red, White, and Blue Fund spent nearly $700,000 last week, and is about to book more fresh airtime. That makes the super PAC essentially the sole factor keeping the airwaves competitive for Santorum there.

Santorum clearly decided (like Obama, and every other candidate) that he could better afford to take a hit on the issue of super PAC money than to turn down the money itself. We’ll see if it was worth it.

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