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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Santorum’s Bragging Rights

Rick Santorum puffs up his credentials a bit in saying he "defeated three Democratic incumbents." He defeated two incumbents; in two other congressional elections, he was the incumbent.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and representative, has touted his Democrat-defeating skills a few times recently. In the GOP presidential debate on Aug. 11, he said he was a candidate "who can beat incumbent Democrats, three of them, three incumbent Democrats." And at the Iowa straw poll on Aug. 13, he said:

Santorum, Aug. 13: I defeated three Democratic incumbents, twice for the Congress in a 60 and 70 percent Democratic district. And once in the state of Pennsylvania, in a state that Republicans haven’t won since 1988, I went up against an incumbent Democratic senator whose campaign was managed by a couple of guys who just managed a pretty successful campaign for president back in 1992, James Carville and Paul Begala, and I beat him. 

But it's a stretch for Santorum to claim three incumbent upsets. The Republican was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1990, when he narrowly defeated incumbent Democratic Rep. Doug Walgren, who had held the seat since 1977. Two years later, Santorum ran for reelection. Redistricting had turned Santorum's district into one with 71 percent Democratic registration, up from 56 percent, according to a February 1992 article in Roll Call. Walgren might have challenged Santorum for his old seat, but he dropped out of the campaign before the Democratic primary, and just before the House Ethics Committee listed Walgren among the top 22 offenders in the House banking scandal. (Lawmakers had bounced checks and overdrawn their accounts at the carelessly run "House Bank.")

So, Santorum didn't win his 1992 reelection against an incumbent Democrat. He defeated state Sen. Frank Pecora, a non-incumbent Republican-turned-Democrat, in a campaign that Roll Call referred to as "easily the most convoluted House race in the state, if not the nation." There were 12 candidates in the Democratic primary, and the winner — Pecora, with 19 percent of the vote — was a Republican state senator who switched parties for the U.S. House election, but remained with the GOP in the Pennsylvania Legislature. "And the chaos," Roll Call wrote, "has only helped the chances of Santorum."

In a March 2011 interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, Santorum put his spin on this reelection, saying: "I defeated another incumbent because he didn't, decided not to run."

In Santorum's next election, he moved up to the Senate — defeating incumbent Sen. Harris Wofford, who did tap the expertise of Democratic strategists Carville and Begala, as Santorum said. Wofford had acquired the seat in 1991, after Republican Sen. John Heinz was killed in a plane crash.

Santorum went on to win reelection to the Senate in 2000 against Rep. Ron Klink, and he lost in 2006 against Bob Casey, son of the former governor.

— Lori Robertson