Religious Right Reacts to Rick Santorum Exiting the Race

With Rick Santorum suspending his presidential campaign, far-right activists lauded Santorum for pushing his fellow Republicans to the right, particularly on social issues.

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who did not officially endorse Santorum but clearly favored his candidacy, applauded Santorum’s “message of faith, family and freedom”:

"Rick Santorum's historic run for president achieved remarkable success because his campaign was based not on money spent but on the message of faith, family and freedom that he carried. I commend his courage, boldness and tenacity in fighting for the values that made America great, and are fundamental to returning America to greatness.

"Millions of voters flocked to Rick not because he was a Republican, but because he passionately articulated the connection between America 's financial greatness and its moral and cultural wholeness. He realizes that real problem-solving starts with an understanding that the economy and the family are indivisible.

"This values message generated enthusiasm and drew many new voters into the process. If the Republican establishment hopes to generate this same voter intensity in the fall elections, Santorum voters must see it demonstrate a genuine and solid commitment to the core values issues," concluded Perkins.

Marjorie Dannenfelser of Susan B. Anthony List, who organized a bus tour on Santorum’s behalf, said:

“With great vision and passion, Rick Santorum reached the hearts of pro-life voters and allowed them to show the strength of their voting bloc,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA List. “The Susan B. Anthony List is proud to have mobilized those key voters.”

“Pro-life voters are a consistent and growing constituency, who proved invaluable to Senator Santorum in state after state throughout the primary elections. We will continue to reach out and mobilize those voters and millions more like them across the country. The political muscle of the pro-life movement will be critical to defeating President Obama in November.” Others were more plain in their disappointment.

Right-wing radio host Steve Deace tweeted that it is “time for a slate of new blood after Obamney loses in November,” and anti-gay activist Peter LaBarbera lamented that the Republican Party is “stuck” with the “pro-homosexual” Mitt Romney.

Conservative luminary Richard Viguerie, who yesterday made clear that he will never consider Romney a bona fide conservative, today urged Romney to pick a conservative running mate, but is disappointed in the current crop of potential candidates:

The demand that there must be some conservative vs. moderate balance on the Republican ticket is already starting to lead the media to engage in some comical contortions as various establishment commentators try to bend their favorite Republican elected official’s record and views to be conservative enough to place a Romney led ticket in the conservative camp if their favored candidate is picked.

The problem with this exercise is that by-and-large the names offered are either not movement conservatives or they are not yet power players in national politics with a strong movement conservative constituency of their own.

Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Bob McDonnell, Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez and the rest of the names floated by the inside-the-Beltway pundits all have their good qualities – but none has established their conservative bona fides by being tested on the national scene and none brings a strong base in the conservative movement to add real grassroots conservative credibility to a Romney led ticket.

Viguerie also warned that Romney’s attacks on Santorum may hurt him with the conservative base:

To date Mitt Romney has spent some $100 million to drive the conservative candidates from the field, in some case through vicious personal attacks. However, he has spent little effort making the case for his own candidacy to grassroots movement conservatives.

The first great challenge facing Republicans is whether or not Mitt Romney can heal the wounds created by his negative campaigning.

The grassroots movement conservative voters who powered the Santorum campaign can not be taken for granted. During the 2006 congressional elections some 4 million conservative voters stayed home, producing one of the biggest defeats for the Republican Party in the modern era.

The next step is up to Mitt Romney. Romney is seriously behind with committed conservative voters, to catch up he must make the case that he merits the support of movement conservatives and that a Romney administration, if elected, can and will produce conservative government.

UPDATE: Gary Bauer of the Campaign for Working Families and a prominent Santorum supporter said his candidacy “will contribute to the end of the Obama Administration this November,” and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention claimed Santorum successfully “resurrected himself once again as a major political figure in our nation” through his role “in the most important election in our nation since 1860.”

Another Santorum booster, Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nance, urged Romney to “reach out to conservative women since they are the ones who get on the phones and do tons of volunteer work,” and on a similar note Liberty Counsel chairman Mathew Staver, who backed Newt Gingrich, said Romney has “to make some intentional steps to reach out to evangelicals and religious conservatives,” adding that “it would be a mistake to assume he has every vote from evangelicals and religious conservatives locked up.”

However, Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association and Patrick Henry College, who signed a letter of far-right leaders who described a Romney nomination as a “disastrous mistake,” told CNN that he may not back Romney in the general election:

Evangelical activist Michael Farris was not exactly surprised that Rick Santorum suspended his campaign on Tuesday. But that doesn’t mean that Farris, a longtime political organizer, knows what he’s supposed to do now.

“Right now my choice is to sit on my hands and do nothing or to actively try to find some alternative” to Mitt Romney, Farris said in an interview shortly after Santorum's announcement.

“Some of us just have a hard time supporting a person who said he was going to be more liberal on gay rights than Ted Kennedy,” said Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, referring to remarks Romney made in a 1994 letter.

Farris’ reaction is a stark emblem of the disappointment among religious conservatives over Santorum's announcement, and a reminder that Romney’s enthusiasm deficit among the conservative evangelicals who form the GOP’s base hasn’t gone away.