Santorum posts runaway victory in Missouri primary
As he had hoped, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum ran away with Missouri's presidential primary Tuesday, winning over half of the vote and beating chief rival Mitt Romney by a ratio of more than 2 to 1.
Although turnout was low, and the primary was non-binding, Santorum and roughly 100 of his allies, who gathered in the St. Charles convention center, were ecstatic.
"Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota!" Santorum declared.
But rather than jab at the former Massachusetts governor, Santorum looked toward the White House.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I don't stand here to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney," Santorum said. "I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama."
Santorum blasted Obama as exemplifying "secular values" counter to those of religious Americans.
"He thinks he knows better" about what Americans need and want, Santorum said. "He thinks he's smarter than you."
Santorum's victories in Missouri, as well as in Minnesota's non-binding caucus, have helped change the narrative -- even if only temporarily. Missouri's GOP presidential delegates will be allocated during the March caucuses.
"Even though the primary has no impact on the caucus, this could turn out to be a very good night for Rick Santorum," said former state Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood. "In some cases, success breeds success. Even though the primary doesn't carry any weight, it will breed success in the caucus because people will see what he can do in the state and jump on his bandwagon."
Santorum's win is particularly significant since Romney had all the prominent backing in Missouri and collected most of the campaign cash.
Even so, Romney failed to carry a single county in the state.
Santorum may have been helped because outspoken rival Newt Gingrich wasn't on the ballot. Gingrich had opted not to file last fall, after state Republican Party leaders made Missouri's primary non-binding to comply with national party rules barring most states from awarding delegates before March 1.
That decision was made after the General Assembly failed to move Missouri's primary to March.
State parties focus on positive
The state Republican Party, which had been neutral, issued a statement that ignored the candidates and focused on the potential impact of Tuesday's results.
David Ficke happily waves a sign after former Sen. Rick Santorum is declared the winner of the Missouri primary.
"With national Republicans, analysts and media focused on Missouri, our state is once again playing an important role in the process of electing a president. And while the non-binding primary is certainly not an ideal situation, we agree with the reporter who observed earlier today that the Show-Me State primary could still 'carry a lot of weight.'
"We thank all Missourians who did their civic duty and made their voices heard, and we encourage all Republicans to attend the March caucuses and take part in the beginning of the process that will bind Missouri's national delegates."
On the Democratic side, President Barack Obama garnered close to 90 percent in a contest against three unknowns who, like him, had ignored Missouri's contest.
Still, the state Democratic Party said, "Today, Missouri Democrats came together in a show of strength and organization that truly stands in stark contrast to our Republican counterparts. While the results aren't much of a surprise, President Obama made a strong showing here in a Missouri primary that encouraged the most Missourians possible to have their votes counted in the nominating process."
Low turnout sobering
Putting a damper on the results was the lack of enthusiasm among voters in both parties. Voter turnout was running around 10 percent statewide -- far lower than the lackluster 23 percent that election officials had initially predicted.
In fact, Tuesday's statewide tally was less than a quarter of the turnout four years ago for the presidential primary. Obama, for example, on Tuesday collected only about 16 percent of his 2008 total. Romney received just one-third of his tally four years ago.
Still, Democrats bragged that at least Obama outpolled Romney on Tuesday, even if only by about 600 votes. But Santorum collected more than Romney and Obama combined.
In St. Louis County, the prediction for Tuesday had been 20 percent. But before the polls closed, St. Louis County Democratic elections director Rita Days observed ruefully: "If we hit 5 percent, we'll be doing good. It's a little discouraging."
A Democratic victory party organized by some St. Louis party officials attracted just a few dozen to a bar in Fox Park. But city Democratic Party chairman Brian Wahby said, "Democrats are fired up for Obama's re-election."
In St. Charles, roughly 100 supporters gathered to celebrate the former Pennsylvania senator's victory. Said David Ficke of Maryland Heights: "It increases his momentum -- definitely."
State Sen. Scott Rupp – a Wentzville Republican who warmed up the crowd for Santorum – said there was a "special connection" between him and the former senator.
"I have a daughter with special needs," Rupp said. "And I know that Rick has been a true champion for some of the most imperfectly perfect in our world. So that’s one of the reasons I am so happy to see Missouri deliver the state for Rick Santorum.”
In his remarks, Santorum highlighted his ties to religious conservatives by singling out the Obama administration's decision to require all institutions that offer health insurance to provide coverage for contraceptives and other reproductive needs. Santorum cast the decision as an attack on religious freedom.
"Look what happens when the government gives you rights," Santorum said. "The government can take them away."
Romney's most prominent Missouri backer, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., offered praise to Santorum -- with a caveat. "I congratulate my friend Rick Santorum on his win tonight, but the fact remains that this is a non-binding primary, meaning Missouri's delegates are still very much up for grabs," Blunt said.
"Mitt Romney has the organization and the resources to go the distance in this election, and I believe he'll ultimately win our party's nomination."
Contact Beacon political reporter Jo Mannies. Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state and local government and politics.