Rick Santorum was the only Republican presidential candidate to campaign in Missouri, and it paid off Tuesday as he swamped Mitt Romney in the state’s primary.
The victory, however, was somewhat hollow since he won no delegates in the non-binding election and Newt Gingrich never registered to be on the ballot. Still, Santorum’s campaign insisted it picked up some badly needed momentum.
“Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota,” Santorum said during a victory party in St. Charles, Mo. “We doubled ’em (Romney) up here and in Minnesota.”
With 72 percent of the vote counted by 11 p.m., Santorum had 55 percent of the Missouri vote and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 25 percent. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas Ron Paul was third with 12 percent.
The Missouri election was essentially an expensive straw poll — costing taxpayers an estimated $7 million — with the GOP opting to pick its delegates for the national convention at a series of statewide caucuses on March 17. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, has no guarantee that Tuesday’s outcome will translate to success in March.
The statewide turnout was expected to total only about 10 percent, down dramatically from a forecast turnout of 23 percent by election officials.
Some may interpret the dismal numbers as another sign of little enthusiasm among Republican voters, although the non-binding nature of the vote may have had something to do with it. Turnout in Kansas City south of the river — among both Republicans and Democrats — was under 6 percent.
On the Democratic side, President Barack Obama easily won the Missouri primary over three little-known candidates.
But with a projected victory in Minnesota’s non-binding caucuses also held Tuesday, Santorum claimed he was back in the game following a string of defeats since his come-from-behind win in Iowa on Jan. 3. With 41 percent of the vote counted, Santorum was ahead with 45 percent in Minnesota to Paul’s 27 percent and Romney’s 17 percent.
Tuesday’s only other contest was in Colorado, which also held non-binding caucuses. Romney was hoping to pick up a win there, but early returns favored Santorum.
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri — who has endorsed Romney — dismissed Santorum’s victory in Missouri as having little value.
“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. “I believe he’ll ultimately win our party’s nomination.”
Despite Santorum’s strong showing, the Romney camp also maintained it was still on the path to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination because it has the best-funded and best-organized campaign in the field.
“Governor Romney is the only candidate prepared to compete in simultaneous contests across the country,” Romney political director Rich Beeson noted.
Political analysts also said that Romney’s still the man to beat.
“This may help Santorum raise a little bit of money,” said Missouri State University political scientist George Connor about the Missouri primary, “but I can’t believe a victory in a primary that doesn’t count is going to make all that much difference.”
Santorum showed solid strength throughout Missouri, including rural counties that make up much of the GOP base. He insisted during a stop in Lee’s Summit Friday that success in the primary would translate to success in the second vote in March, when 52 delegates will be at stake.
“I think that’ll have an impact on the caucuses,” he said. “The broad vote always seems to have an impact on how delegates are apportioned.”
Missouri GOP executive director Lloyd Smith agreed.
“We certainly think that the results will have an impact on the candidates, the state and national media coverage, and even the caucus-goers themselves,” Smith said, adding that the primary served as a “guidepost” for Republican caucus-goers.
But others disagreed. Santorum, they said, might well be out of the race by then, given his spotty fundraising and less-than-promising prospects in many of the upcoming caucuses and primaries.
Kansas City voters who backed Santorum mainly cited his personal qualities.
“He seems like a real straightforward guy,” said Juan Borque, who lives in the Kansas City, North, neighborhood of Briarcliff. “He’s a great family man. He’s articulate and had a very good record of achievement in Pennsylvania.”
Nancy Klipowicz described Santorum as a decent human being with good values. “He lacks glitz and glitter, but he’s smart enough to run the country,” she said.
JoAn Lee said that although Santorum has strong religious beliefs, “he’s going to think about what’s good for the country, and not necessarily his personal beliefs.”
But Romney supporters were quick to cite his ability to beat Obama in the fall election, and his experience in office and the business world. “I think he’s real steady and has got a long track record,” said Patricia Miller. “He’s calm.”
With little drama on their ballot, many Democrats said they trekked to the polls just to show support for a president who has struggled with sub-50 percent job approval ratings.
Katherine Davis said Obama was doing a good job. She said she wanted to support the African-American cause.
“We’ve come from slavery to the White House, and I think that’s a big accomplishment,” Davis said.
Others said they voted out of a sense of civic obligation.
“Even though it’s a shoo-in, I still wanted my vote registered,” said Joanne Couture, who voted at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on East 40th Street. “The true voter comes out in this stuff.”
How Missouri wound up with a GOP primary that didn’t count began in the 2008 primary season. That year, states scrambled to take early voting positions, leading to a logjam at the front of the pack and Iowa’s caucuses just a few days after New Year’s 2008.
Following that election, the national Republican Party stepped in and warned that states conducting primaries before March 1 would lose half of their delegates to the national convention.
Last year, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a bill in Missouri that repealed a law that requires a presidential primary on Feb. 7.
But Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon wound up vetoing the measure because of other provisions inserted into the bill. An effort to deal with the issue in the fall veto session faltered when senators couldn’t agree on whether to stick with the Feb. 7 primary or move it to March.
The Missouri GOP state committee decided to select its delegates at the March 17 caucuses to avoid being penalized by the national party. But the law still required holding Tuesday’s primary.