A Riverside resident has played a significant but little noticed role in the rise of Rick Santorum from afterthought to serious contender in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Steve Baer, who has lived in Riverside since 1989, played a key role in uniting Christian conservatives and others in Iowa behind Santorum, which led to his strong showing and ultimate 34 vote victory in January’s caucuses.

Since then, Baer has continued working behind the scenes for Santorum, organizing and helping finance millions of robocalls, emails and text messages promoting Santorum and attacking Mitt Romney.

Baer ran for Illinois governor in 1990 as a conservative challenger to Jim Edgar. He lost but received 256,889 votes, or 33 percent of the total. Edgar, who went on to serve two terms as governor, won the primary with 63 percent of the vote.

Earlier this week, Baer sent out a press release officially announcing his endorsement of Santorum, but he has been helping Santorum since late November.

“I have been almost entirely divorced from Illinois politics for most of the period since 1990,” Baer told the Landmark. “The only reason for sending out the press release is that a quarter of a million people voted for me in 1990.”

Baer’s support for Santorum goes far beyond a press release. Baer; his wife, Donna; and daughter, Salem – one of his 10 children – met with Santorum at a private dinner at a downtown Des Moines hotel on Nov. 18. 

At the time Baer, who describes himself as a libertarian conservative, wasn’t sure who he would support.

He had doubts about what he saw as Santorum’s record in Congress as a big spending Republican. He doubted Santorum’s commitment to cutting the size of the federal government. But at the dinner, Santorum began to convince Baer that he was serious about cutting federal spending.

“I was pleased with both what he had to say at the dinner, and then he made some moves on policy that I found even more pleasing,” Baer said.

At the time former Speaker of House Newt Gingrich was surging to the front in Iowa polls and Santorum was mired in the low single digits.

But Baer was friends with Bob Vander Plaats, a leader of Iowa social conservatives who lost but had run a strong race in the Republican primary race for governor in 2010. Vander Plaats and other social conservatives were considering endorsing Gingrich. Baer helped persuade them to unify and back Santorum.

“Without the Baers, I can’t imagine Rick would have made it alive out of Iowa,” said the Rev. Albert Calaway, a retired pastor and Santorum supporter in Iowa, in Baer’s press release. “Key endorsements were on the very brink of going to Gingrich, and Steve swung them to Rick.”

Riverside resident and WGN-TV Republican political commentator Chris Robling agrees that Baer played a key role in Santorum’s comeback in Iowa.

“Steve was aligned with Iowans who supported Santorum over Gingrich,” Robling said. “That moment in November led to Santorum’s strong finish in Iowa and eventual win in Iowa led to the two person race we have now. But for Steve and his allies, it would not necessarily be the two-person race it is right now.”

Baer, who has home schooled his children, has broad connections with home schoolers, social conservatives, economic conservatives and Tea Party leaders. He hosted Vander Plaats and some Tea Party leaders at his home last May.

Baer is not part of Santorum’s official campaign and has not contributed to the campaign directly or to the Super PAC supporting Santorum. He is a bit vague about the exact details of what he does.

“I can tell you very safely that we’ve done much more than anybody who’s on record,” Baer said. “The least of what we’ve done has involved money. What we’ve really done is try to coach and encourage and help the Iowans as they came together around the choice of Santorum, because there was every possibility that the conservatives of Iowa were going to split into the Bachmann camp, Gingrich camp, Paul camp and give Romney a sense of inevitability.”

Baer works with others to create and send out targeted messages to likely Republican primary voters in what are known as independent expenditures. He spends his own money and encourages other to spend and contribute.

“I had knowledge,” Baer said. “In some cases it’s the knowledge of a prime mover, in other cases of a financier, and in other cases of somebody jumping on a bandwagon. In some cases it’s kind of all three. Depending on the element I could be one or more of those things.’

Baer typically works through 501(c)(4) organizations, which are non-profits but can spend up to nearly half of their contributions on political activities. Donations to a 501 (c)(4) are not tax deductible.

“I have contributed enormously to his campaign, but it is mostly off the radar,” Baer said. “It’s all been 100-percent legal, but I like privacy.”

Baer declined to say how much of his own money he has spent helping Santorum.

“I am secretive,” Baer said. “I like my privacy about those things.”

Baer, 52, said that his father was a liberal and when he was growing up in Chandler, Ariz., his father would take him to rallies of farmworker union leader Cesar Chavez and Lyndon Johnson.

It was at Brown University that he started developing his own conservative political views. At Brown he played on the rugby team with John F. Kennedy Jr.  Baer describes himself as a non-denominational Protestant, and says he believes strongly in what he calls hetero-monogamy and the institution of marriage. He said he likes Ron Paul’s views on economics, but not his views on defense and social issues.

He did not consider supporting Newt Gingrich, because Gingrich would not sign Vander Plaats’ marriage pledge and because of his doubts about Gingrich’s values and record.

“Over his career he has proved that he is unable to discipline his own pants, so I don’t see how he imagined he would discipline entitlements,” Baer said. “He follows his appetites. He cheated on two consecutive wives after a decade of marriage chasing skirts. I think a man’s character ought to go into the choice. I reject the idea that character has no bearing on qualifications for public office.”

Currently Baer is involved in investments and philanthropic projects related to malaria control in Africa.

He says that while Santorum is not his dream candidate he is the best candidate in the Republican field.

Can he win Illinois?

“I think he has a very good chance,” Baer said.