Nick Ryan puts the writing on the wall for Rick Santorum in Iowa

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum has visited Iowa lots of times since (barely) winning the 2012 GOP caucuses, but discouraging signs for his presidential aspirations continue to mount. He has been outshined by Senator Ted Cruz and others at several events drawing large conservative crowds here. One of his former Iowa staffers jumped ship for Cruz before eventually taking a position with former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s political action committee. The most recent polls by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics indicated that Santorum is the first choice of only 3 percent or 4 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers.

Yesterday Maggie Haberman of the New York Times broke disastrous news for Santorum: Nick Ryan will lead a super-PAC for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee during the upcoming presidential campaign. Iowa’s dark money king is best-known for leading the 501(c)4 group American Future Fund, but in 2011 Ryan created and led a super-PAC which spent millions on Santorum’s behalf before the presidential caucuses and primaries. He has also had close ties to The Iowa Republican blog’s publisher Craig Robinson, who provided mostly favorable coverage to Santorum’s campaign before the 2012 caucuses. The Iowa Republican has leaned toward other candidates Ryan favored in past elections, such as Jim Gibbons in the 2010 GOP primary to represent Iowa’s third Congressional district and Mark Jacobs in the 2014 U.S. Senate primary.

Ryan aligning with a rival candidate is as significant as longtime Mitt Romney consultant David Kochel joining former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s political action committee a couple of months ago.

From Haberman’s report:

Nick Ryan, who worked on a “super PAC” in support of Rick Santorum’s caucuses victory over Mitt Romney in Iowa in 2012, will be the president of the group, which is called Pursuing America’s Greatness. It was filed with the Federal Election Commission in March.

The group will give Mr. Huckabee, who is not an officeholder, a vehicle to pay for travel and some advisers as he considers whether to launch a second campaign. […]

Mr. Ryan’s wife, Jill Latham Ryan, who also worked on Mr. Santorum’s effort in 2012, will be part of the new political action committee as well. Mr. Ryan has effectively run other outside groups, including the American Future Fund, which he started in 2007 and which has brought in $100 million.

“I am excited about the opportunity to help Governer Huckabee,” Mr. Ryan said in a statement. “He is a man of great integrity and it is a great opportunity to help enhance his vision for a stronger and more prosperous America.”

I’m not aware of any daylight between Santorum and Huckabee on any substantive issue. But Huckabee takes several advantages into the next presidential campaign. He leads Santorum as a first choice in the two latest Selzer polls for the Des Moines Register. According to former Republican Party of Iowa State Central Committee member Jamie Johnson, the 2012 Santorum staffer who now works for Perry (after flirting with Cruz), Iowa social conservatives never connected with Santorum as well as they had with Huckabee before the 2008 caucuses.

Since 2012, Santorum has spent more days in Iowa than any other potential GOP presidential candidate except for Perry. But rank and file Iowa Republicans appear to be looking for other options–Huckabee, Cruz, Perry, or maybe Ben Carson or Scott Walker.

Nationally, Huckabee enjoys much higher name recognition than Santorum does, thanks to his gig hosting a Fox News show for several years.

Since the last presidential election, Santorum has been telling Republican audiences some things they don’t want to hear about the party’s failure to speak to working-class Americans. I don’t think he’s any more electable than Huckabee, but he is speaking some inconvenient truths. I can see why many conservatives would prefer Huckabee’s rhetoric. He’s serving up red meat without asking GOP activists to eat some vegetables.

Santorum sounds committed to running for president again, but with what army? Nick Ryan was one of his most important allies during the last campaign, and he will be soliciting big conservative donors to support Huckabee now.

Santorum would do better to chase some other dream.

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