With Texas Trip, Santorum Highlights Ties to a Familiar State

Posted by Patrick Svitek - The Texas Tribune on
photo by: Rebecca F. Miller

Clarification appended

If Texas was going to matter in the 2012 presidential race, Rick Santorum would have been its best bet. 

"He could've and probably would've changed the dynamics of the race in that he could've energized a kind of conservative insurgency against Mitt Romney," recalled Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "Texas, especially North Texas, is the epicenter of Tea Party support, and he tapped that brilliantly in 2012, and he could've done that quite well."

But Santorum dropped out of the race April 10, seven weeks before the Lone Star State's Republican primary. It could have been the state where Santorum mounted a late-in-the-game comeback and hobbled Romney's march to the nomination. 

Three years later, the former Pennsylvania senator is back on the hustings in Texas, quietly gathering chits for a primary positioned much earlier in the nominating process. Santorum spent Friday and Saturday in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, meeting voters and raising money in the region that has been a weekly part of his life since he took the helm of a company based there two years ago.

"Texas already having two dogs in the hunt, local boys in Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, is going to provide some interesting dynamics," said Lisa Hendrickson, a Flower Mound public relations pro helping organize support for Santorum in Texas. "At the same time, he's been laying the groundwork in Texas as well as across the country for so long. Some people are just not paying attention."

Santorum is said to have a number of state co-chairs lined up, including Tarrant County Tea Party activist Julie McCarty and Hendrickson. His campaign already has a direct link to Texas in Jessica Colon, a Houston political consultant who ran his Lone Star State campaign in 2012 and now serves as his national political director.

Santorum brought his latest campaign to Texas in recent days, delivering a speech on radical Islam on Friday in McKinney and receiving the "Key to the City" on Saturday in Roanoke, another city outside Dallas. He also was expected to attend a number of fundraisers in the area, including one in Roanoke.

McCarty, who helped host Santorum during the swing, said three years and a bigger 2016 field have done little to diminish Santorum's standing among the Texans who wanted to see him win in 2012.

"Obviously he was very strong last time around, and there was a lot of disappointment when he pulled out before we were actually able to vote in our primary," said McCarty, adding she was pleasantly surprised to see the support he had in Texas last time has held up well. "As I've started asking people where you're at on this, either they're still open-minded or willing to support him again." 

Since bowing out of the 2012 race, Santorum has done anything but lower his profile in the Lone Star State. Before launching his latest campaign, he was spending two or three days a week in the state as CEO of EchoLight Studios, a Christian film company, according to his spokesman, Matt Beynon. Santorum took the job with the Dallas studio in 2013.

On the political side, Santorum has kept in touch with Texans through Patriot Voices, a nonprofit he set up shortly after exiting the 2012 race. The group was active in the statewide elections last year, lending Santorum's endorsement to Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton, now the governor and attorney general, respectively. And it has five Texas state co-chairs, some of whom are expected to cross over to the 2016 campaign. 

He also has kept up appearances in Texas GOP circles, stumping with candidates he has endorsed and holding fundraisers for them across the state. He has had a presence in Austin, like when he showed up at the Capitol in 2013 as the Legislature was about to give final approval to abortion restrictions that former state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, famously filibustered. 

Yet for all his work tending to the state, Texas could be a steep climb for Santorum in 2016. With 1 percent support, he finished in the back of the pack in a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll released in February. And some of his key supporters from Texas in 2012 are staying neutral for now or not getting involved in the 2016 race at all, such as Michelle Smith, one of his top organizers in the state last time who now works for Paxton. 

Susan Combs, then the comptroller, was the highest-ranking elected official from Texas to support Santorum in 2012 race, endorsing him after the candidate she previously backed, former Gov. Rick Perry, dropped out. At the time, Perry directed his former supporters to vote for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but Combs maintained Santorum was the "only real conservative left in the race." 

On Friday, Combs said it probably will be a "number of months" before she gets involved in the 2016 contest.

"I'm just keeping my options open," she said. "I think it's going to be an interesting challenge for all of these candidates because the field is so broad." 

Like many GOP hopefuls, Santorum is looking for his place in an increasingly crowded field, especially compared with the one in 2012. Rottinghaus, the political science professor, suggested Santorum's biggest challenge this time around in Texas is figuring out how to reclaim the advantage he had as the Texas primary neared in 2012.

"The real problem is that he's got serious competition for the most conservative wing of the party," Rottinghaus said, pointing to Tea Party darlings such as Ben Carson and Cruz. "Santorum is no longer the most viable conservative option." 

Santorum, who launched his 2016 bid last month outside Pittsburgh, has made it clear he is serious about competing next year in Texas, whose primary is set for March 1. After then-state Sen. Dan Patrick ran into Santorum the day of the state GOP's 2012 convention — shortly after Romney clinched the Republican nomination — Patrick all but acknowledged the Lone Star State had not seen the last of Santorum.

"He loves Texas," Patrick, now the lieutenant governor, wrote on Facebook, "and knows if ... Romney doesn't win in November, he will be looking to Texas to help him in 2016 if he decides to run."

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Tarrant County Tea Party activist Julie McCarty's remarks on the support for Rick Santorum in Texas.

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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