Rick Santorum might appeal to social conservatives and the right more than Mitt Romney but in swing Senate races that can be as much a hinderance as help. Santorum might be able to bring out more social conservatives but in return he could lose moderate, suburban voters. Considering split-ticket voting has gone the way of the dinosaur a polarizing presidential candidate could severely hurt the GOP’s chances of winning the Senate or holding the House in November.
Many GOP analysts and strategists believe that Romney would not drag down the GOP ticket. He would be a good top-ticket candidate because he does not connect with voters the way Santorum does. In swing suburban districts Romney’s personal brand and his emphasis on fiscal issues would likely play better among a more diverse electorate ideologically.
Santorum has made a living off of his socially conservative positions winning multiple races. But in 2006 the limits of his strategy was apparent when he lost his Senate reelection bid in 2006 by almost 20 points. Santorum won the many rural counties in the Southwest of the state but was utterly destroyed in the Pennsylvania suburbs. In 2010 when Republican Pat Toomey won Arlen Specter’s Senate seat he ran ahead in the suburbs (ever so slightly).
The GOP has a number of high-profile Senate races which may hinge on how the suburbs swing. The most watched are the races in VA, MA, NV, FL and Ohio (with Pennsylvania perhaps in the mix). Due to demographics and the nature of these states electorates winning the suburbs is actually more important than just bringing out the base.
In Virginia you have former Governor and Senator George Allen, a notable conservative, running against former Democratic Governor Tim Kaine. Both Kaine and Allen plan to stress fiscal issues in the campaign but it is notable that Allen has dropped slightly behind Kaine in the latest polls taken. This drop has occurred as the VA legislature has brought social issues front and center and the GOP presidential candidates have hammered the president on contraceptives. Allen’s drop in support has come from NoVA, where many sprawling and expanding suburbs exist. For Allen to win this seat for the GOP he needs to at least run even and rack huge margins elsewhere in VA. Romney could help him do this.
In both Florida and Ohio the GOP has good candidates running. Polls show the race in Florida is close whereas polls on Ohio give the Democratic Senator a little bit of an edge. In both cases, how the numerous suburbs in each state swing could sway the races. Mitt Romney has proven he can carry the suburbs and major cities of FL and OH (FL was a closed primary, OH open). Santorum in Ohio however carried virtually every other county in the state.
In Nevada Romney could be an especially big help to interim GOP Senator Dean Heller Romney could play well in moderate, suburban Clark County and bring out the GOP heavy Mormon vote. Heller already has deep ties to swing Washoe County (Reno) due to representing the area for a decade. By contrast Santorum could bring out the GOP rural vote but unless he played well with Hispanics or somehow made inroads with the suburbs this likely would cost Heller the seat.
Perhaps no other candidate would benefit more from a Romney candidacy than Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Brown has positioned himself as left of center on social issues and right of center on fiscal issues. Romney still engenders fond feelings from MA voters, especially the massive bloc that identifies as independents, and that could help Brown pull just enough of the independent vote to hold his seat for a full term. Brown faces a liberal and progressive firebrand in Elizabeth Warren and if he has a moderate GOP candidate at the top of the ticket it would be easier to paint Warren as an extreme, far left candidate, even for Massachusetts voting standards.
Both Romney and Santorum have undeniable advantages. Santorum plays better among low-income whites, rural and evangelical voters. Romney’s strength comes from the suburbs and winning independents and moderates. In the GOP presidential primary Romney’s strength has been a weakness. But in the general election Romney’s strength could be the reason the GOP takes the Senate and easily holds the House.