Perfect Timing

Rick Santorum’s Lucky Culture War Over Contraception

With pivotal primaries coming up, Santorum is riding high on a wave of conservative protests against Obama’s contraception mandate—an issue that’s kryptonite for Romney. Plus, Caitlin Dickson on the GOP's push to overturn Obama’s contraception compromise.

"Diligence is the mother of good luck." Benjamin Franklin said it, and Rick Santorum is living it.

The dogged campaigner couldn’t have planned it better himself: a national debate over religious liberty and contraception exploded just in time to fuel the uber-Christian’s ascension to the “Not Romney” spot in the GOP primary.

Or, if you are Rush Limbaugh, you believe liberals magically orchestrated the kerfuffle so they could slam Santorum for his anachronistic view of contraception if he gets the nomination. Limbaugh told his listeners Wednesday, “[O]f course the theme of that is: Santorum hates women, Republicans hate women, Republicans have no respect for women.”

Either way, it’s working for him. Pew Research found in their most recent presidential primary poll that Santorum has taken frontrunner status in the GOP primary and is surging among white evangelical Republicans. He bests Romney by 2 points (30-28) nationally and holds a 10-point lead over Romney among white Catholics.

The showdown in Michigan couldn’t come at a better time either. The GOP primary electorate is estimated to be one-third Catholic in an extremely anti-abortion rights state. According to Bloomberg, almost two-thirds of state lawmakers are endorsed by Right to Life of Michigan.

While a much cited Public Religion Research Institute poll last week showed that a majority of Catholics sided with Obama on the contraception mandate issue, what is important for the purposes of the GOP primary that only 28 percent of Republicans agreed that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to offer health plans that covered contraception at no cost. (Sixty-three percent of Democrats supported the requirement.) Daniel Cox, research director at PRRI agrees Santorum has been the beneficiary of extraordinary good luck. He told me, "Santorum has been able to take advantage of the pivot toward culture issues. He is a true believer with positions that resonate with social conservatives; he has been their champion. So that has paid off. Also, the fact that the economy has improved also advantages Santorum because that was Romney's argument. When you take...away [economic stewardship] then what does Romney have left?"

Multiple polls released Wednesday show a Santorum surge in the Wolverine state. An MRG Michigan Poll has Romney trailing Santorum by 10 points in the state where he grew up and his father was a popular governor. Rasmussen reports found Santorum beating Romney 35 percent to 32 percent in Michigan. Just a week ago it was Romney leading the Rasmussen poll with 34 percent and Santorum in third at 18 percent.

In his Missouri victory speech, Santorum took advantage of the issue du jour and blasted President Obama for dissing the Catholic hierarchy and accused him of trying to impose his “secular values” on America. Santorum is tapping into a potent issue that has been bubbling under the surface for some time: a perception among religious conservatives that the Obama administration is hostile to religion. The contraception controversy finally gave the critics something they could latch onto to exploit the seething anger in the GOP base toward a White House it believes is waging a “War on Religion.”

Put another way: “This was an unexpected gift.” That’s how Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and republican strategist explained it to The New York Times.

Well, it was a gift for Rick Santorum. For Romney, it was a lump of coal. Of all the issues the author of “RomneyCare” does not want on the front burner, there are none more toxic for him among the GOP base than reproductive rights and health-care mandates. Obama’s mandate for free contraception manages to wrap both of those up tidily as a potent reminder to GOP voters of what makes them balk at Romney.

Santorum, on the other, has a pristine record on both of these issues. Furthermore, his public position on contraception is eminently reasonable no matter how liberals try to paint him as a misogynist caveman. Wednesday night, Santorum told CNN’s Piers Morgan that while he personally opposes contraception based on the teachings of the Catholic Church, that “it should be available.” He pointed out that he had voted for contraception funding domestically and internationally and said he “would not support any law that would prevent that.”

If the GOP has its way, the issue of religious liberty will not be going away as a campaign topic. On Thursday Republican Rep. Daryl Issa is holding a hearing ("Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?) under the auspices of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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In the Senate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012, that would allow an employer to deny coverage of contraception if it violated its religious or moral beliefs. Rubio, a superstar of the right, has been beating the drums against what he calls Obama’s federal overreach and violation of religious liberties. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo is pushing a more restrictive bill that would allow health plans to deny coverage for anything that violates their beliefs.

In the House, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) is the sponsor of the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which he says has 190 supporters in the House. It would protect the religious liberty and conscience rights of those who object to the contraception mandate.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is considering plans to coordinate with other religious groups, including evangelical Christians, on a campaign to raise awareness of what they view as egregious violations of their religious liberty.

An issue that will frustrate the Obama administration’s position is news that Catholic Charities, which employs 70,000 people and serves millions, is aligning with the bishops on the contraception mandate issue. It was previously believed that they supported the compromise.

Yep, that’s more good luck for Santorum.