Rick’s home sweet home

    Back in the dead of winter, whoever imagined that the Republican presidential race could go deep into April and rescue, from its traditional irrelevance, the party’s Pennsylvania primary?The late-April Keystone GOP contest has rarely mattered much, and it might be a footnote yet again if Mitt Romney can put down his rivals once and for all by sweeping the April 3 states (most notably, Wisconsin) and winning tonight by a double-digit percentage in Illinois. Indeed, a few polls suggest that his margin could be big in Illinois (albeit with tepid turnout, since even his prominent Illinois supporters consider him a snore).Still, let’s remember what happened last week, when the Mitt-friendly polls in Mississippi missed the enthused grassroots conservative support for Rick Santorum – who wound up winning comfortably. That same dynamic could produce a tighter margin than anticipated in Illinois, thanks to Rick-friendly voters in the vast regions south of the moderate Chicago suburbs. Even though Illinois has traditionally favored moderate Republicans (fiscally conservative, socially tolerant), the party there has lately been moving to the right. This paragraph, in a weekend New York Times story, said it all:”Some Republicans say this state’s political inclinations are simply shifting, giving a more conservative bloc a far louder voice and leaving them wondering whether that old Illinois stalwart, the middle-of-the-road Republican, is obsolete.”Which brings us to Pennsylvania – where the same dynamic has been happening.And that’s very good news for Santorum, who is likely to view his state as home sweet home.At least in Illinois, which hosts an open primary, Romney could get some help tonight from independents. But that’s not possible in Pennsylvania. On April 24, it’s a closed primary; only registered Republicans can participate. And, unfortunately for Romney, the Republican electorate in Pennsylvania is more conservative than ever before – because the moderates, particularly in the populous suburbs near Philadelphia, have fled in droves.Here’s the macro picture: Ten years ago, the parties were close in statewide registration (3.7 million Democrats, 3.2 million Republicans). Today, they are not (4.1 million Democrats, 3 million Republicans). Why has the Democratic advantage more than doubled in 10 years? Because of the moderate exodus.Here’s the micro picture: Ten years ago, in suburban Bucks County, 56 percent of the party registrants were Republicans. Today, only 48 percent are Republicans. Ten years ago, in suburban Montgomery County, 58 percent of the party registrants were Republicans. Today, only 47 percent are Republicans.It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to explain why this has happened. A reality-based Republican will suffice. Here’s what Kenneth Davis, a former Montgomery County chairman, told me yesterday in an email:”Moderate southeast Pennsylvania Republicans began to exit the party when Newt Gingrich became (House) Speaker (in 1995). The Contract for America, and the rhetoric surrounding it, was uncomfortable for people here who were used to less inflammatory talk – especially on social issues.”Then, the deluge. A lot of moderate suburban Republicans re-registered as Democrats to vote for Ed Rendell in his successful 2002 gubernatorial primary against Bob Casey. More of them bailed on the GOP in 2010, re-registering as Democrats to support Arlen Specter (himself an ex-Republican who bailed) in Specter’s losing senatorial primary against Joe Sestak. And, as I can attest from my own interviews in the suburbs early in the last decade, a lot of moderates were broadly disenchanted with President Bush’s priorities, as well as the southern conservative dominance of the party.Davis, in his email, said: “Despite my efforts as Montgomery County Republican chairman all along the way, most of these Republicans chose not to return to the party, as it continued its rightward movement. So the Republican party today lacks a firm center. In fact, it is decidedly Right. There are fewer moderates and more conservatives, thus more hospitable to Rick Santorum and his brand of Republicanism.”No wonder Santorum has chosen to spend Illinois primary night on friendly turf in Pennsylvania, where the remaining GOP voters are his kind of people. On April 24, he might be able to brag that he has finally won a northern state – even though that would be misleading, since the Pennsylvania GOP electorate now has the traits of a typical southern states.Anyway, assuming Santorum can somehow pick up enough Pennsylvania delegates – who (like in Illinois) are listed separately on the state ballot in a Byzantine process worthy of Rube Goldberg – he could breathe enough fresh oxygen to sustain him for the southern states that vote in May.Yes, May. There hasn’t been a Republican race like this since Ronald Reagan battled President Gerald Ford deep into the spring season of 1976. Are we having fun yet, or what?——-By the way, here was Santorum yesterday: “I don’t care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn’t matter to me.” Say what? When the economy was tanking, the GOP cared mightily about the unemployment rate. But now that the economy is steadily upticking, apparently the unemployment rate doesn’t matter anymore.But wait, Santorum is now saying that the rate does matter. (A necessary move, since Illinois’ rate is higher than the national average.) Last night, he went into what-I-meant-to-say mode on Fox News: “It’s not that unemployment isn’t important, it’s just you have to get to the foundational root cause of what is causing the unemployment.”But wait, Republican party chairman Reince Priebus said on CNN this morning that the rate doesn’t matter: “I think that Rick Santorum is right. This election is about big things. It’s about liberty and freedom. (The election is not) what the Department of Labor says the unemployment rate is.”I think I understand what Priebus is saying: When the unemployment rate is sky high and climbing, the rate is real.  But when the rate is falling, it’s just a potentially dubious stat from President Obama’s Department of Labor.That’s what happens when you try to mop up after Santorum. ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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