THE BLOG

Rick Santorum and the Suicide of the GOP

02/22/2012 09:21 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2012

With Rick Santorum's campaign surge continuing the very real possibility that the former Pennsylvania Senator could end up as the GOP's standard-bearer in November. Despite his appeal to many parts of the Republican Party, Santorum's nomination would be a disaster for the GOP. It's not simply that a Santorum ticket would lose badly, cost Republicans control of the House of Representatives, and lead to a larger Democratic Senate majority. It's worse: Santorum's nomination could result in the end of the Republican Party as a nationally competitive political entity.

Let's consider the facts: even though some states may reliably sit in one column or the other in presidential years, either party, in the right circumstances, can win important elections anywhere. Vermont, the state where Obama won his most lopsided victory in 2008 (68 percent) has sent Republicans to both its governors' mansion and the Senate during the last decade while arch-conservative Utah (63 percent to McCain) currently sends a Democrat to the House and has a reliably Democratic capital city. For all their genuine differences, neither party as a whole makes a practice of writing off any sizable group of voters or large part of the country.

While a Republican-party-nominated Santorum will get a decent percentage of the vote, his appeal to large portions of the current party is minimal. He has already written off all non-conservatives. His opposition to NAFTA, support for tariffs, rather incoherent tax plan, and hard-core social conservative emphasis will turn off "Chamber of Commerce" Republicans.

Such people -- I'm one of them -- will still vote Republican in November but probably won't donate to or volunteer for a Santorum campaign in large numbers. The same hard-core social conservatism (more Santorum's style than his substance) will also probably keep many gay and female conservatives at home on Election Day. And so forth.

The sum of these defections won't destroy the GOP overnight -- a "pure" GOP may even do better in its places of strength -- but it will gut the party infrastructure in places where it's already weak. With no excitement around the presidential campaign for parts of the party and a polarizing candidate on the ticket, a lot of promising younger Republican candidates will lose and Republicans of all stripes will forfeit races up and down the ticket. In the wake of this type of wipeout, the Republican Party could well disappear in places where it's already weak.

The Republican Party would then become a regional entity: large parts of New England, wealthy-Democratic-leaning suburbs, upper-income parts of big cities, and many other areas where Democrats have a real but not total advantage would largely be conceded to Democrats outright the same way (sadly) that most African-American-heavy areas already are. And, even if such places are not areas where Republicans can regularly expect to win local elections today, they can provide vital margins of victory in statewide races.

For the most part, then, the GOP could become a regional party of the South and Rocky Mountain regions just as the Democrats were once limited to big cities and the South. It has happened before and such a party has a very hard time. Between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and Franklin Roosevelt's creation of the New Deal Coalition in the early 1930s, Democrats only won presidential elections when the Republican Party divided itself. Grover Cleveland won the popular vote three times with support of reformist Republican "mugwamps" and Woodrow Wilson landed in the White House because Teddy Roosevelt's insurgent campaign split the GOP field neatly in half. Quite simply, regional parties can't govern.

A Rick Santorum nomination, in short, isn't just a bad idea: it's could literally be an act of suicide for the party he represents.