Rick Santorum's Big, Anti-Gay Ally

The National Organization for Marriage boosted the former senator's presidential campaign in Iowa. It could do the same in New Hampshire.

| Tue Jan. 10, 2012 7:00 AM EST
2012 GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum

When Rick Santorum suddenly surged in the polls in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, his rising popularity owed in part to a last-minute super-PAC ad buy that helped get his mug on the airwaves. But Santorum also got another boost from one of his anti-gay allies, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which hammered one of the ex-senator's main rivals—Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian from Texas.

Now the group is angling for a replay in New Hampshire, where it has already been waging a contentious battle to repeal the state's popular same-sex marriage law. (The state Legislature could vote on whether to repeal the law any day now.) NOM announced Monday that it plans to run a $50,000 independent-expenditure campaign against Paul in the hours before the crucial Tuesday primary. The group started running TV ads online on Friday and calling voters across the state to fill them in on Paul's failure to adequately oppose gay marriage.

NOM has tried this strategy before, in advance of last week's Iowa caucuses. Paul was rising in the Iowa polls until mid-December, when he became the subject of a major negative TV ad campaign paid for by NOM. Starting on December 28, the group spent about $80,000 on ads hammering Paul for being the only major GOP presidential candidate who had failed to sign its pledge to oppose same-sex marriage. It also launched a website called wrongonmarriage.com, which highlighted Paul's past statements opposing a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, as well his comments supporting the right of gays to marry.

NOM's ad campaign may have been a key part of Santorum's success. To the evangelical activists who dominate the Iowa caucuses, gay marriage is a line-in-the-sand issue. Paul clearly didn't pass the litmus test: Despite his claims of being personally opposed to homosexuality, he believes the states should have the right to make same-sex marriage legal. NOM made sure voters knew about that.

Whether NOM's New Hampshire effort will benefit Santorum as much as it did in Iowa is an open question. New Hampshire's GOP primary voters are far less socially conservative than those in Iowa. Granite State voters have booed Santorum for his gay-marriage views, and Paul is running much farther ahead in the polls there than Santorum. Still, NOM's attack on Paul certainly can't hurt Santorum, whose campaign has still remained badly underfunded compared with his competitors.

Santorum has a long history with NOM, the group behind ballot initiatives across the country attempting to ban gay marriage, including California's Proposition 8 measure. One of NOM's staunchest supporters, Santorum has frequently fundraised for the group in the past. (Santorum and group's president, Brian Brown, also reportedly attend the same Catholic church in Virginia.)

NOM board member Neil Corkery was a loyal Santorum campaign donor when he was in Congress. And when Santorum was gearing up to run for president in the summer of 2010, NOM helped introduce him to voters in the critical state of Iowa. That year, Santorum headlined NOM's "Judge Bus" tour, traveling the state in a successful effort to persuade Iowa voters to eject three state supreme court justices who in 2009 overturned a state ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional. (All three judges lost the election.)

It's no surprise, then, that NOM was pleased with the outcome of the Iowa caucuses. While the nonprofit group's tax-exempt status prevents it from explicitly endorsing a candidate, Maggie Gallagher, the group's cofounder, gushed on NOM's blog that Santorum was a "Catholic hero." Following his speech on Tuesday, she wrote:

Rick Santorum gave a magnificent speech tonight. It was an expression, a flowering in a way I do not think America has seen in my lifetime of Catholic culture. He made his economic message more than a question of self-interest—he made it a moral cause. He connected the dignity of every human life, with the dignity not only of work, but every human being who is made in the image of his Creator to be a creator—a worker, and not just a consumer.

God bless him, God bless him. This is a serious fight.

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Santorum and NOM are natural allies. When it comes to opposing gay rights, Santorum has few rivals in the GOP. His anti-gay rhetoric earned him a personal jihad from Seattle sex columnist Dan Savage after Santorum compared homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia in 2003. Savage rallied the gay community to permanently turn Santorum into a neologism for a by-product of anal sex that Santorum, even with his successful Iowa performance, hasn't been able to vanquish from the top Google results for his name.

NOM has a history of championing public figures, like Santorum, whom it sees as having been persecuted by gays. (See also former Miss America Carrie Prejean.) The highly secretive organization has spent the better part of the last three years arguing that it's not gays but the supporters of traditional marriage who are the true victims of discrimination, harassment, and hate speech. By hooking up with NOM, Santorum has also allied himself with an organization that has a dubious record of complying with state election laws and federal tax requirements and has battled against campaign transparency laws.

Founded in 2007, NOM was created specifically to put Prop 8 on the ballot in California, but since then it has backed similar measures in Washington, Maine, Iowa, and elsewhere. The group has also targeted political races, vowing to attack any candidate who supports gay marriage.

During the Prop 8 campaign, opponents of the measure used state campaign-finance records to reveal the identities of donors backing the measure and to organize boycotts against some of their businesses. NOM's lawyers, comparing anti-gay marriage activists to early civil rights organizers and the NAACP, claim that as a result of this public outing, among other things, donors suffered harassment and other indignities, such as having their lawn signs stolen during the election. Rather than duke it out in the court of public opinion, NOM sued to allow backers of anti-gay measures to remain cloaked in secrecy.

In the state of Washington, NOM supported a legal effort to keep secret the names of people who signed a public petition to get an anti-gay marriage measure on the ballot. In 2010, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was met with distaste—even from Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was in the 8-1 majority and wrote:

Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which…campaigns anonymously…and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.

Santorum has helped NOM raise money to wage these types of legal battles. And he has promised to continue fighting them if he wins the White House. He has also joined most of the rest of the GOP field in signing NOM's pledge promising that, if elected, he would appoint a commission to investigate gay rights activists (presumably nasty-email writers and lawn sign thieves) for harassing supporters of traditional marriage.

The pledge reads: "I, Rick Santorum, pledge to the American people that if elected President, I will…establish a presidential commission on religious liberty to investigate and document reports of Americans who have been harassed or threatened for exercising key civil rights to organize, to speak, to donate or to vote for marriage and to propose new protections, if needed."

Santorum's anti-gay views are widely known. But it's unclear how much Republican voters know about his promise to use the powers of the federal government to target LGBT activists. Except for Paul, most of the other top-tier GOP candidates have also signed NOM's pledge. But as a long-time ally of the group, Santorum seems most likely to actually follow through on that particularly unsavory part of NOM's pledge. It's one thing to dislike gays personally, but it's quite another to use the power of the nation's highest office to launch a witch hunt. It's the kind of stance that might make a conservative voter give Ron Paul a second look—even after $50,000 in last-minute negative ads.

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