The Chase 2012

Santorum wins North Dakota, Tennessee, Oklahoma

North Dakota

In results that were stunning to non-North Dakota observers, Rick Santorum topped the four-candidate field in the Roughrider State’s caucuses today.  Although final results would not be available until Wednesday morning, the former Pennsylvania senator won with 40 percent of the vote of caucus participants to 27 percent for Ron Paul and 25 percent for Mitt Romney, with Newt Gingrich (8 percent) trailing behind.

Although Scott Hennen contacted us as he was going to a caucus in Fargo, the popular and influential radio talk show host dubbed “the Rush Limbaugh of the prairie” by the Wall Street Journal would not say who he was voting for.  His requirements as an on-air personality notwithstanding, Hennen explained that he had met all of the candidates and “in fact, Newt was on with me today.  And Ron Paul is actually in the state and will be at a caucus tonight.”

But Hennen did point out that Santorum “lit everyone up her when he came to North Dakota three weeks ago.  He spoke at Tioga, which is the oil capital of North Dakota [oil was first drilled there in 1951] and in Fargo, where he drew 2000 people.” Hennen noted that when Romney came to Fargo shortly after Santorum, he only drew 200.

In contrast to other states where his campaign has been the exclusive property of social issues conservatives, Santorum’s effort in North Dakota attracted many who were considered more regular Republicans.  Among those in his camp were former State GOP Chairman Gary Emineth and State Public Service Commissioner and U.S. House hopeful Kevin Cramer.

Although Gingrich did not fare well, Hennen pointed out that the former House speaker spoke excitedly on the air about returning to North Dakota later in the year and hosting a national energy conference in the state that is rapidly becoming an international energy mecca.

Tennessee

A strong last-minute surge and good grass roots support from social conservatives was enough to give Rick Santorum a victory in Tennessee tonight.  Several networks have just project Santorum the winner.  According to the most recent results, he is leading Mitt Romney by a margin of 41 percent to 35 percent statewide, with Newt Gingrich (17 percent) and Ron Paul (7 percent) trailing.

How the 58 national convention delegates from the Volunteer State will be apportioned among the candidates is unclear.  But one thing that is quite clear is that Newt Gingrich was clearly hurt by tonight’s primary in a state about which he once voiced considerable optimism.  The former House speaker never filed a full slate of delegates for the primary and his original statewide chairman, State Sen. Stacy Campfield of Knoxville, switched to Santorum a week ago.

Campfield told the Knoxville News that, in spite of his public backing for Gingrich, Santorum called him to request a meeting and that “[h]e made some very valid points.”  One key point was that a Middle Tennessee State University poll showed Gingrich with 13 percent among likely voters and 20 percent of the vote was needed to qualify for convention delegates.  In large part because he felt a conservative vote for Gingrich would be wasted, Campfield concluded, he switched to Santorum.

“Romney had the support of [Tennessee Gov.] Bill Haslam and [Speaker of the House] Beth Harwell, both establishment moderates,” noted one veteran of state GOP campaigns who requested anonymity, “He also has on board one of the main up-and-coming wealthy Republican fundraisers on, Bill Hagerty, who is also the appointed State Commissioner of the Economic and Community Development Dept. Hagerty has some influence with a swath of establishment types in the Middle Tennessee area.

“But these are all the same people that McCain had on board four years ago, and Huckabee won Tennessee.”

In targeting Tennessee, Santorum followed Huckabee’s playbook.  And obviously, the strategy worked.

Oklahoma

By forging the same social issues coalition that worked so well for Mike Huckabee in ’08, Rick Santorum appears to be have won in Oklahoma’s  primary tonight.  The latest results showed Santorum capturing 42 percent of the vote among Sooner State Republicans, compared to 35 percent for Mitt Romney, 13 percent for Newt Gingrich, and 10% for Ron Paul.

While noting the analogies between Santorum this year and Huckabee four years ago, one seasoned observer of Oklahoma GOP politics said that the former Pennsylvania senator was actually “following a trail blazed back in 1988 by Pat Robertson when he ran for president, and Oklahoma was a good state for him.  He focused almost exclusively on the pro-life and pro-family activists and they delivered  for him in a big way.”

So it was for Santorum.  Backed by such fervent social issues activists as Sally Kern of Oklahoma City and Mike Reynolds of Moore, the Pennsylvanian leapfrogged ahead of his three opponents in Oklahoma and should get the most out of its 43-member Republican convention delegation.

As in other states, Romney had the backing of “establishment” party figures:  from former Gov. Frank Keating to Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Jr. to State Auditor Gary Jones.  Also weighing in for the former Massachusetts governor was the state’s Sen. Tom Coburn.  One notable exception to the “establishment” pedigree of Romney backers in the state was ex-State Rep. Forest Claunch, who is identified with social issues.

Gingrich started off strong with backing from political heavyweights such as state legislators Kim David of Wanger, Don Armes of Southwest Oklahoma and Colby Schwartz of Canadian County.  The former House speaker also made a much-praised speech at Oral Roberts University.  But he was never quite able to forge it all into a winning formula.  Obviously, Santorum did.


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