Rick Santorum's Colorado Win Shows Why GOP Loses Swing Voters

Social issues continue to dominate the Republican primary process, which regularly prove disastrous in the general election.

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LAKEWOOD, COLO.—A couple of quick takeaways from former Sen. Rick Santorum's shocker win in last night's Colorado caucuses: One, Colorado Republicans still can't get out from under their own base. They can't get a moderate to win in a primary and they can't get a social conservative to win in the general.

And two, not only do voters as a whole dislike former Gov. Mitt Romney the more they get to know him (per the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll), so do voters in his own party. Turnout was depressingly low, far below both this year's expectations and about 5,000 below 2008's statewide totals.

Santorum won the Republican base areas of El Paso County/Colorado Springs as well as Mesa/Grand Junction and the very conservative Eastern Plains. He also won Adams County in suburban Denver. Romney won Denver proper and the suburban Denver counties of Jefferson and Arapahoe, but not by enough to compensate for his losses elsewhere. Romney won Jefferson County against Sen. John McCain with 65 percent of the votes in 2008. This year, he beat Santorum by less than 10 percent.

[Check out editorial cartoons about the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Looming on the general election horizon is the focus on social issues that Santorum's victories will bring. As Mark Murray (@mmurraypolitics) of NBC News Tweeted Wednesday morning, "you know the economy MUST really be improving when the culture war (abortion, contraception, gay marriage) comes roaring back."

This is not good for Republicans in Colorado or anywhere else.

The Republicans' inability to nominate moderates in Colorado continues to cost them elections. One of the main reasons Democrats have been winning repeatedly in Colorado over the last decade, even surviving the Republican wave in 2010, is because we are able to nominate affable centrists to run statewide—Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Gov. Bill Ritter, Sen. Mark Udall, Sen. Michael Bennet. Even in primaries, Democrats have regularly been able to coalesce around candidates who speak to a broad spectrum of voters, not a narrow base, and then go on to win in the general.

[Read Laura Chapin: Mitt Romney and the GOP’s War on Birth Control]

The opposite is true of Republicans, most notably in 2010 when they nominated Dan Maes as their gubernatorial candidate and Ken Buck in the Senate race. Social issues continue to dominate the Republican primary process, which regularly prove disastrous in the general election.

So it's not a surprise that in the Colorado caucuses, where the base of the base shows up, Rick Santorum's appeal to social conservatives struck a chord. The fact that it resonated strongly enough to win statewide is a surprise. Santorum's shoeleather-and-handshakes, outside-the-mainstream media approach was also smart. Base conservatives are distrustful of mainstream media, which they perceive as biased, so in Santorum's case both the messenger and the message were effective.

Santorum will spend the next few weeks raising money and polishing his social conservative appeal to the Republican base. This is great for him. It's not so great for Republicans in the general election when they will need moderate voters, especially suburban women, to win Colorado and other states.

  • Ken Walsh's Washington: Rick Santorum's Triple-Header Turns Race Upside Down—Again
  • See a collection of photos of the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
  • See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.