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updated: 3/14/2012 2:14 PM

Rutherford: No regrets on backing off Santorum petition challenge

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  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigns in St. Louis.

      Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigns in St. Louis.
    Associated Press

  • The Illinois campaign for Rick Santorum, left, knew his petitions were short of the number of signatures needed for some delegates to appear on ballots, but it struck a deal with Mitt Romney's campaign to drop all petition challenges.

      The Illinois campaign for Rick Santorum, left, knew his petitions were short of the number of signatures needed for some delegates to appear on ballots, but it struck a deal with Mitt Romney's campaign to drop all petition challenges.
    Associated Press

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By Kerry Lester
Politics and Projects Writer
klester@dailyherald.com

With the Illinois presidential primary expected to be a tight race, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his backers are expected to spend millions on TV ads and other campaign costs by Tuesday's election.

If Romney's Illinois campaign had followed through with challenging the petitions of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's delegates, the scenario could have been much different.

Had he eliminated many of his closest competitor's delegates, Romney could have been poised for a much less strenuous campaign in Illinois.

A total of 54 delegates will be directly elected by voters next Tuesday. Another 15 will be named at the state party convention in June, making Illinois one of the bigger prizes in the race for delegates.

Delegates for Santorum in January filed the minimum legal number of petition signatures to appear on the ballot in just four of Illinois' 18 available congressional districts, a review of petition signatures found. In 10 others, delegates who filed signatures came far short of the 600 required to appear on the ballot, a review of those signatures found. They didn't file any delegates in four districts.

"They were woefully short," state Treasurer and Romney Illinois campaign Chairman Dan Rutherford said.

The petitions of Santorum delegates were initially challenged in January, but those challenges were withdrawn shortly after they were filed, said Illinois Board of Elections Director Rupert Borgsmiller.

Rutherford said he spoke with former state Rep. Al Salvi, of Wauconda, an honorary co-chair of Santorum's campaign.

"He said, 'We know we're short,'" Rutherford said of Santorum's petition signatures in congressional districts 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17 and 18. No challenges were filed of Santorum delegates in the 6th, 8th, 9th and 14th congressional districts, which include many Northwest and West suburban traditional Republican strongholds.

The Santorum campaign had just gotten off the ground in Illinois and was scrambling to make up for lost time after a surprise neck-and-neck finish with Romney in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus. Santorum was belatedly declared the winner in Iowa.

"That's when I visited with the Boston folks (Romney's national campaign), and we said, 'OK, let it be,'" Rutherford said.

Jon Zahm, Santorum's Illinois director, also had filed a challenge against Romney, on the basis that his statement of candidacy was notarized in Massachusetts, not Illinois, as well as challenges to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

But soon after, Zahm said, Illinois campaign leaders began talking.

They agreed to a "mutual nonaggression pact," Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady said.

"I don't think it benefits the party as a whole if people are whacking each other off the ballot," Brady, of St. Charles, said. "We don't want to fight with Republicans."

The Romney campaign has challenged opponents in other states. Santorum, for instance, did not meet the qualifications to be on the March 6 primary ballot in Virginia. Several sources within the Romney campaign have expressed frustration that Illinois did not go the same route.

But Rutherford says he's confident in his decision.

"The answer is absolutely no, I am not reflecting and saying I wish I would have (done otherwise)," Rutherford said.

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