July 7, 2011

Santorum Warms Up to Iowa Farmers

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Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum

Steve Boender, a soft-spoken farmer from Oskaloosa, Iowa, first met Rick Santorum in May when he drove the Republican presidential candidate to a scheduled speaking event in Pella. Sitting next to him in his Chevy pickup, Boender found the politician surprisingly relatable.

Boender

Steve Boender, Iowa farmer. Photo by Mike Anderson.

“There was a corn yield calculator lying on the console,” Boender said. Santorum picked it up and asked him what it was. Boender explained how farmers use it to estimate corn yield after the ears had grown in. “He asked a number of questions about corn production, and then he asked if he could keep that corn yield calculator. And I told him, ‘gladly.’

Since then, he has stayed in touch with the former U.S. senator through weekly emails, and in June, Santorum accepted his invitation to visit Boender’s farm and have lunch with his family and friends. Boender thinks Santorum’s conservatism, talk of family values and faith reflects his own beliefs that the country has crossed certain boundaries that it never should have.

In a pre-election cycle dominated by high-profile GOP candidates, the name Rick Santorum might not ring any bells. But his campaign hopes to change that by focusing more on social conservatives like Boender, meeting them face-to-face and trying to schedule at least 31 more visits, more than doubling the time in Iowa so far.

Jamie Johnson, Santorum’s state coalitions director, said success in Iowa will translate into “all the national attention he needs.”

Family and Political Persona

Rick Santorum wears a thin piece of royal-blue cloth with the letters F.A.M.I.L.Y stitched across it in white. The connotation is paramount to Santorum’s philosophy, which he developed over his twelve-year career in Congress.

“Forget About Me, I Love You. It’s about dying to self and serving others,” Santorum once explained to the 2004 graduating class at Cheyney University. In his book, It Takes a Family, he says children must learn selflessness at an early age.

Santorum, 53, spent most of his childhood in Butler, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh. Raised Catholic by Aldo and Kay Santorum, he graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1980 and an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh in 1981.

He entered politics in college when he volunteered for the campaign of Sen. John Heinz. From there he put himself through law school and worked as administrative assistant to Doyle Corman, a moderate Republican senator from Pennsylvania.

Since then, his political aspirations have taken him from both houses of Congress to the opening stretch of the race for the presidency. In building his political persona, he often highlighted his family as a high priority, a practice that might appeal to social conservative voters.

“Nothing in this world is more important to me than the happiness and well-being of my wife and children,” Santorum said. “It is my most important job.”

Santorum earned his law degree in 1986 and began practicing at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. This is where he met his future wife, Karen Garver Santorum, and they now have seven children. In 1996, they had another child, whom they had planned to name Gabriel Michael, but the child died about two hours after a pre-mature birth. Karen wrote about the experience in her book, Letters to Gabriel. For Santorum – who was in the U.S. Senate at the time – the incident galvanized his developing opposition to abortion.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum. Official photo.

“Karen and I couldn’t rationalize how we could treat this little human life at twenty weeks’ gestation in the womb any different than one twenty weeks old after birth,” Santorum said in his book. Their response was to give their deceased son a name and spend that night in the hospital with him, bringing the body home to show to their children the next day.

Rick Who?

The caucus campaign is not the first time he’s had to fight for recognition. In his 1990 campaign for the House of Representatives, he ran against Doug Walgren, a seven-term Democratic incumbent and beat him.

While in the House, he joined John Boehner and Jim Nussle in the “Gang of Seven,” a group of conservative Republicans who relentlessly attacked Democrats who controlled the House. He served there until 1995, when he was elected to the Senate and served until 2007.

While in the Senate, he drafted legislation to make late-term abortions illegal and sat on several major committees, including agriculture, armed services, finance, Social Security and family policy that were either high profile or studied issues that have become key in today’s political climate. In 2000, he became chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

He spent much of his career working on welfare issues, playing a role in the passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Santorum says recipients of unemployment should receive federal incentives to return to the workplace and become productive members of society. One of his initiatives, the Charity, Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act, provided federal incentives to charitable organizations and offered opportunities for low-income families to “build their individual assets.”

While in Congress, Santorum occasionally cast votes that seemed contrary to his stated positions. For example, while some of Santorum’s policies championed welfare reform and low-income American citizens, he twice voted against raising the minimum wage.

“Increasing the minimum wage does not fight poverty; it simply raises the burden on employers,” Santorum said in an email to IowaWatch through Deputy Communications Director Matt Beynon. “We need to work toward helping people earn more than the minimum wage. We need to enact policies that expand opportunity and putting increased burdens on employers does just the opposite.”

Santorum’s style of politicking is sometimes portrayed as confrontational. New York Times journalist, Michael Sokolove, in an extensive biographical article on Santorum, described him as energetic and confident, “impatient and sometimes impertinent – the political equivalent of the too-rough kid on the playground who either doesn’t know the rules of the game or just doesn’t care to follow them.”

In a 2003 interview with an AP reporter, Santorum famously said, “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual (gay) sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

Presidential Candidate

Today, as he scours Iowa for votes, he continues harping on social conservatism.

Santorum flew out to Oskaloosa County, Iowa, in June to share hamburgers and fruit salad with the Boender family and to continue playing up family and faith themes as he addressed his audience in front of a stone fireplace. The words “Faith,” “Family,” “Friends” and “Farming” were etched into tiles beneath the hearth.Text box

He also said he wanted to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the new health care law designed to reduce health care costs and make insurance available to all, and, as the farmers in the audience listened, he said he wanted to phase out the subsidy on the corn-dependent ethanol industry. The ethanol industry is strong enough to remain competitive without the federal subsidy, he said.

“I think one of the things that’s holding back ethanol is this idea that it’s not a product that can sustain itself,” he said.

Boender and his farmer friends seemed unfazed.

“Believe me, the ethanol industry is a huge market for the crop I raise,” Boender said. “But that doesn’t mean that phasing out subsidies won’t allow it to stand on its own two feet.”

Chad Hart is an economics professor at Iowa State University, who worked as the U.S. policy and insurance analyst with the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute. He says that Boender’s assessment is correct for the short term.

“The flooding issues and wet conditions have delayed the planting of corn throughout the U.S., and that tends to push prices up.”

But he said high corn prices are not always a guarantee because of unpredictable market forces. Without a subsidy in place, the ethanol industry could suffer down the line under adverse conditions, as it did in the 2008 recession when plants shut down and people got laid off.

Though much of the national discussion has focused on elimination of the subsidies (the Senate voted to eliminate them 73-27), some lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have suggested retooling it to take effect only in times of need, and to remain tied to oil prices.

Hart said making the subsidy responsive to market forces is a good idea.

Santorum’s voting record shows overwhelming support for foreign and domestic oil projects. Although he has said he supports alternative energies, like ethanol, he voted to defund renewable and solar energy in 1999.

“I believe if you look at my record, you will see I support the advancement of all forms of energy,” Santorum said in the email exchange. “What I do not support is simultaneously subsidizing and incentivizing forms of energy.” He says he disagrees with those who believe green energy can create jobs. Santorum also questions the value of solar and wind energy, because he believes they “do not have the base-load capacity to power” all energy needs. Solar and wind energy advocates don’t disagree, but they argue that solar and wind can make a significant contribution.

The Campaign

Since announcing his candidacy on June 6, Santorum has spent most of his time on the road.

“He’s a fairly energetic speaker,” said Tim Hagle, an associate political science professor at the University of Iowa, who specializes in judicial politics and behavior. Hagle says Santorum will have to focus more on economic issues if he wants any chance at winning the nomination. “The economy is going to drive this thing,” Hagle said. “He’s got to have a pretty good answer and a pretty good plan of what he can do to help get this economy turned around.”

Hagle’s colleague in the political science department, Associate Professor Cary Covington, agrees. Covington specializes in American politics and the presidency.

“Candidates have always got to do a balancing act between what it takes to win the nomination and what it takes to win the general election,” he said.

“You have to move far enough towards the base to win the nomination, but you don’t want to move any further than you have to, because you have to come back and win those moderate and independent voters during the general election.”

Santorum’s strategy isn’t following that plan, and Johnson, Santorum’s state coalitions director, frames it as a positive attribute.

“He’s not a pandering candidate,” Johnson said. “Some would say that’s a no-no, that in order to win the general election, you have to run to the middle to curry the favor of independents. But I think he believes that by charging up the conservative base, that’s the best way to get victory in the general election and let the independents make their choice.”

Covington remains skeptical. “If you’re competing in a primary or a caucus,” he said, “there’s probably enough [social conservative] voters …in those events to win a sizeable share of the vote, but it’s not going to work in the general election, because that group is just not that big when it comes to the general election electorate.”

Boender and Santorum enjoy lunch

Santorum and Boender eating lunch. Photo by Mike Anderson.

Undaunted, Santorum’s staffers are redoubling efforts in Iowa.

“Sen. Santorum is committed to going to all 99 Iowa counties before the Iowa caucuses next February,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a house-to-house, coffee shop-to-coffee shop strategy. We’re going to have as many house parties, as many town hall meetings in coffee shops and diners as possible.”

Boender, the farmer from Oskaloosa, hopes that strategy will bring Santorum back to his farm. He recently invited Santorum and his family to spend a few nights at his farm in July. He sounded anxious about the idea but excited as well.

Face-to-face campaigning is the standard in Iowa, and Santorum’s campaign staff believes his personality is the key to victory. After his first visit to Boender’s farm, Santorum went on to two more events in Iowa, one at a coffee shop in Creston and another at the home of Drew & Kris Ranney in Council Bluffs. At time of this writing, he had more Iowa plans: speaking to voters at a Tea Party Bus Tour in Ottumwa and at Eldon’s Restaurant in Sioux City, according to the Des Moines Register.

“We have found that once voters meet Sen. Santorum, they really like him,” Johnson said. “And they begin spreading the word.”

(CORRECTION: In an earlier version of a story headlined “Santorum Warms Up to Iowa Farmers,” IowaWatch incorrectly reported that Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and his wife agreed to the termination of her pregnancy in 1996 due to life-threatening complications. Although she did suffer the complications, they did not terminate the pregnancy. The doctors delivered the child prematurely, and he died about two hours later. The story began running on the night of July 11. IowaWatch regrets the error.)

 

 

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