Major donors have favored all of his rivals, yet he won Minnesota easily. It's a sign of his direct appeal, backers say.
WASHINGTON - Minnesota Republican voters might have helped resuscitate Rick Santorum's presidential campaign, but the state's big GOP donors largely ignored the former Pennsylvania senator in favor of front-runner Mitt Romney.
The latest campaign finance reports show that Santorum has received less money from major donors in Minnesota than any of his Republican rivals, even as he cruised to an easy victory in the state's GOP caucuses last month.
Santorum backers say that what happened to him in Minnesota is a reflection of a nationwide grassroots campaign that has connected directly with newly energized social conservatives, if not with party leaders and big donors who have tended to favor more established political figures like Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Long-shot Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who has spent years building up a libertarian movement, also raised far more money than Santorum in Minnesota.
"It reflects the broad nature of who he is appealing to," said Gary Borgendale, a Christian conservative leader who has championed Santorum's campaign in Minnesota. "It's a unique grassroots movement of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and strong defense people."
In a GOP nominating contest that has revealed deep divisions between Romney's mainstream conservative appeal and Santorum's religiously tinged insurgency, the Minnesota fundraising totals confirm which side the donor class is on.
Through the end of January, the latest date for which reports are available, Santorum registered barely $47,092 from large donors in Minnesota -- counting only money from people who gave at least $200, the threshold for itemizing contributions so they can be tracked by locale. Paul's take was $230,372, the largest of any of the four remaining GOP candidates.
Romney raised $163,756 in large contributions from Minnesota, while Gingrich brought in $96,875.
In contrast to Santorum's weak donor support in Minnesota, he trounced the GOP field in the Feb. 7 caucuses with 45 percent of the vote. Paul came in second with 27 percent. Romney, with the support of such party heavyweights as Tim Pawlenty, Vin Weber and Norm Coleman, finished third, at just under 17 percent.
Romney backers note that the former Massachusetts governor largely took a pass on Minnesota's nonbinding caucuses this year, recalling that when he campaigned hard in the state in 2008, he won.
Paul and Santorum were the only two candidates who spent significant amounts of time campaigning in Minnesota before the caucuses, which, along with contests in Missouri and Colorado, helped change the dynamics of the 2012 GOP race.
For example, on Feb. 1, less than a week before the state caucuses, a super PAC supporting Santorum spent $134,000 on advertising in Minnesota. A pro-Romney super PAC spent roughly the same amount. But the Romney group directed its fire not at Santorum but at Gingrich, who at the time was seen as a bigger threat.
By then, the Minnesota candidates had exited the race, though they too had raised more cash in Minnesota than Santorum.
Pawlenty raised more than $1 million in Minnesota for his 2012 presidential run, which ended in August after a disappointing third-place finish in the Ames Straw Poll. His take was more than a third of the $2.8 million in large presidential campaign contributions generated in the state through the end of January. Minnesota donors also gave Rep. Michele Bachmann $253,004 in itemized contributions for her White House bid, which ended after her last-place finish in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
Bachmann's loss may have been Santorum's gain, both in terms of cash and evangelical support at forums like Grace Church in Eden Prairie, where Santorum appeared days before the Minnesota caucuses.
Retired loan officer Carol Schmitz of Jordan has supported Santorum and Bachmann's campaigns since last fall, giving $25 donations to each beginning last fall. As Bachmann's campaign began to flounder in December, Schmitz gave $200 to the Santorum campaign.
"I don't think it's money that's driving Santorum. It's people," Schmitz said. "People with a lot of money still have only one vote."
Marianne Stebbins, chair of Paul's Minnesota campaign, said his fundraising thrived on small but frequent contributions. "This race has always been about the non-Romney candidate and whoever has been able to capitalize on that," Stebbins said.
Minneapolis real estate investor Scott Weber is proof of that in Minnesota. He gave the maximum contribution of $2,500 to four Republican candidates, none of them named Romney. From June to mid-January, he wrote checks to Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich and Herman Cain. In the weeks since Minnesota's caucuses, Santorum's surge has made him a believer.
"[Santorum] was an underdog, but he speaks his beliefs," Weber said. "People on my side of the fence don't think that Romney is consistent."
Anybody but Santorum
Still, the picture that emerges nationally is that if the party's right flank is looking for anybody but Romney, Republican money seems to be chasing anybody but Santorum.
"I think that there is a little bit of a disconnect in terms of the folks that caucused and those that are writing the big checks," said Minneapolis lawyer Andy Brehm, a GOP activists who supports Romney.
Exit polls across the country also have demonstrated Santorum's appeal to less well-heeled voters. "He's socially conservative," said Frank Long, a Santorum supporter who owns a landscaping business in Watertown. "His supporters are conservative, which means they live conservatively, including what they do with their money."
The Minnesota numbers also fit a national pattern that has seen Romney's fundraising far outstrip all of his GOP rivals, even as he struggles in rural conservative states like Mississippi and Alabama, whose primaries last Tuesday went to Santorum.
Altogether, Romney has raised nearly $63 million, double the amount of Paul, his closest rival in the money chase with $30.8 million. Gingrich has raised $18.2 million, and Santorum's total haul has been $6.7 million.
All those totals are dwarfed by President Obama, whose campaign organization has raised $137 million for the 2012 election. Of that, $875,186 can be traced to large donors in Minnesota.
But as Republicans fret at Obama's enduring fundraising prowess, Santorum is setting out to prove that money doesn't always buy you votes.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.