Santorum wins big. Is it a big nothing for the GOP race?

Santorum's victories in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado mean bigger challenges for Romney and bett

After victories in Florida and Nevada, it seemed Republicans, even Tea Partiers, Evangelicals and otherwise "very conservative" Republicans, were finally consolidating around Mitt Romney.

That was the narrative on Sunday. By Monday, all that had changed. A new poll released by Public Policy Polling showed that Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania Senator considered the most socially conservative of the candidate, was going to have a very big day, with wins in Missouri and Minnesota, and a strong second-place finish in Colorado.

As of midnight EST, that prediction was about right. Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado all went to Santorum. Romney came in second in Missouri and third in Minnesota (pending final results, he was second in Colorado). Santorum won 55 per cent in Missouri to Romney's 25, 46 per cent to Romney's 16 in Minnesota (Ron Paul won 27 per cent). In 2008, Romney won Minnesota.

This is a big win for Santorum or big nothing, depending on how you square it. Tuesday's victories help revive his campaign, which had been flagging since Iowa. But Minnesota's and Colorado's caucus results, like Iowa's, are non-binding, and Missouri doesn't pick its party delegates until later in the year.

But in many ways, a win for Santorum is another way of saying a loss for Romney. That's what Tuesday was about -- a warning that the conservative heart of the Republican party is wary of a Mormon millionaire who soaks his opponents in attack ads and whose bleeding-heart liberal health reform law was the model for Obamacare. Newt Gingrich recently compared Romney to Barack Obama and billionaire George Soros and it looks as if those attacks have paid off. For Rick Santorum. The American heartland is the native soil of American conservatism. It's no surprise voters there went for a devout Catholic who speaks of doomsday and the evils of stem-cell research.

Indeed, while Gingrich and Romney have sparred relentlessly over the past 30 days, Santorum has gone unscathed while benefiting from the fallout. But the honeymoon is over. On Tuesday, the Romney campaign downplayed that day's vote while turning its attention to Santorum, accusing him of being a "big government conservative" and then cribbing his well-received freedom of religion message (which, in the language of the looking-glass, means anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage).

Romney skipped Missouri because it didn't have delegates at stake. To Santorum, this is why Missouri was a more honest assessment of who the most viable candidate is. Santorum won every single county in Missouri and Romney didn't spend a dime. Even so, he has more money, more organization and more experience running for the White House. In Florida, more than 90 per cent of ads were negative and most were from Romney's camp. The onslaught continued in Nevada, and now that Santorum is surging, he can expect the same treatment through March, the earliest we will know which candidate will be chosen.

Santorum's win on Tuesday complicated an already complicated GOP nomination process. First, new rules by the Republican party mean that delegates are awarded proportionally to winners, instead of the winner-takes-all approach of the past. That gives every candidate incentive to run longer, even Gingrich, who hasn't won since South Carolina.

The longer Gingrich stays, the happier Obama is, because Gingrich is tearing Romney apart even as he loses. Romney, meanwhile, is trying to play a short and long game at the same time, with one eye on Gingrich and one eye on Obama. Now he has to watch Santorum, too, and Santorum is now a viable candidate to not only be the not-Romney but perhaps to lead a third party spawned from the cracks long-ago evident in the GOP.

Then again, Gingrich. By March, the earliest we will see a dominant figure arise, the primaries will move back to the American south, where Gingrich is a shoo-in, just as he was in South Carolina, where there was a surge in voter turnout that rivaled every primary since. Even with no delegates at stake, Santorum's victories, combined with proportional delegates to each winner, mean bigger challenges for Romney and better chances for Gingrich.

 

 

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.