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Santorum and others are due for a lesson

There have been a few pleasant surprises in this otherwise grim election season. For one thing, it seems like non-traditional households-- who've long been a target for Republican rhetoric about declining moral values -- might have an unexpected ally: Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

 

In recent days, we've learned that Mr. Family Values, who once likened homosexuality to incest and polygamy, has been sharing his Penn Hills home with two other adults. That's what it says on voting records, at least, which list Santorum's two-bedroom home on Stephens Lane as the voting address of four adults.

 

The six Santorum children, obviously, don't have two daddies. (If they did, Rick would surely tell us: He told the Associated Press last year that in domestic matters "[the] right to privacy...doesn't exist.") Instead, Santorum has apparently been using the Penn Hills address to maintain residency in the state he represents, even though his family mostly lives near Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, as Penn Hills school-district officials recently announced, real Penn Hills residents have been paying to educate Santorum's brood at an Internet charter school.

 

Santorum pulled his kids from class after that announcement made headlines, but he's still at least pretending to call Penn Hills home. On Nov. 20, he announced the community was getting a $200,000 federal grant for sewer improvements to benefit "my fellow residents of Penn Hills." Given the bull Santorum is slinging these days, an improved sewer system is just what his "fellow residents" need.

 

But Santorum should be more worried about the lessons other people's kids are learning. While Republicans trounced Democrats in 2004 elections, they failed to win among one key age group: voters 18 to 29. By supporting the Kerry/Edwards ticket 54 to 44 percent, young voters "were the only age group to prefer the Democrats," reports the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. Or as local political activist and gadfly Pat Clark says, "Republicans should be freaked out because the only age group they didn't win with were the future." 

 

In the past, Republicans could console themselves that young slackers traditionally don't vote. But turnout among young voters jumped markedly this year, especially in Pittsburgh. The city is notorious for losing young people, but it managed to turn up -- and turn out -- thousands of them on Nov. 2. Clark studied 30 city voting districts in which at least half the population was between 18 and 40 years old. In those districts, turnout jumped by one-fourth over the 2000 election. That's nearly three times the increase among county voters of all ages, and three-quarters of the youth vote went for John Kerry.

 

Of course, there's no guarantee that young people will continue voting Democratic -- or voting at all. "You have older people entrenched in the local Democratic Party [who've] always been at a loss as to how to reach young people," says Matt Preston, a CMU grad student who participated in turnout drives among college students. It's not hard to imagine some of the local party establishment being afraid of younger voters. Would they demand an end to county row offices? Outlaw Bingo within city limits? Maybe even create bike lanes on city streets?

 

But Republicans like Santorum have much more to fear. Preston says students are rallying behind traditionally Democratic issues like mass-transit funding, and polls suggest that younger voters are more tolerant of sexual diversity. Even many college-age Republicans I meet are frequently of a libertarian bent: They're attracted to the GOP's small-government position on spending, but repulsed by its Big Brother approach to sexuality. Every time the GOP caters to the so-called "Christian Right" -- by hounding shock-jock deejay Howard Stern off the air, for example -- they risk further alienating Preston's classmates.

 

"I don't think of 2004 as an exception," Preston says. "I think of it as a starting point."

 

That hope may prove false, as so many hopes have this year. "A lot of students voted for Kerry and are saying, ‘Well, I wasted my vote,'" says Yacov Crawford, who helped mobilize voters at the University of Pittsburgh. But if they get over this year's setback, they could hurt politicians who have a "traditional" approach to both moral crusades and political campaigns. If nothing else, younger voters have a built-in BS detector -- one that not even a $200,000 sewage upgrade will help Santorum evade.

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