04/11/2012 09:26 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Santorum: The Indelible Stain on the GOP

Though Rick Santorum has dropped out of the race for the presidency, he won't be going away any time soon. He's turned around his political career, going from a has-been to a formidable politician. He gave hope to the evangelical, hard-right base in the GOP, and but for some pretty major gaffes -- like, say, alienating Catholics, of which he is one, by saying President Kennedy made him want to throw up -- he might still be very much in the race.

Santorum is poised now to play a big role in GOP politics and could be part of a Romney administration if he wins. If Romney loses, the base will scream, "I told you so," and clamor for Santorum. We could be dealing with him and his ugly politics once again in 2016.

The fact that Santorum got as far as he did should give pause, certainly to the GOP establishment moving forward, but really to all of us. He is perhaps the most extreme anti-gay, anti-choice candidate to get as far as he did, winning primaries well into the race and polling in the mid-40s in a head-to-head matchup with President Obama. It can't be laughed off easily that, in 2012, a man who would urge his daughter not to have an abortion and "make the best of a bad situation" if she were raped and pregnant, or would force divorce upon legally married gay couples, could get that kind of support.

For the GOP, Santorum's support underscores how the evangelical right still has a stranglehold on the party, and how much enthusiasm it now shows for Mitt Romney will be interesting to watch. Santorum forced Romney to veer far to the right, doing damage that Romney may or may not be able to repair. If Romney loses, the party will continue to be in chaos, as the hard-right base stakes its claim that the loss was due to a lack of a true conservative nominee.

For the rest of us, the the extremism we've witnessed among the Republican candidates -- and watching them blow themselves up -- might have brought glee in some quarters. And if Romney loses, there will no doubt be more of that. But the hateful rhetoric we've seen over the past few months, from Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and, most notably, Rick Santorum, has had real consequences.

The attacks by all of them on the civil rights of American citizens -- demeaning gay people in ugly ways -- are the kind that help foment bias in our the culture. Perry lamented that gays could serve in the military but children supposedly couldn't pray in schools. Bachmann's past, including comparing gays to Satan, followed her into the campaign, along with her husband's "pray away the gay" program. Gingrich railed with all manner of religious condemnations. Santorum -- where do we begin? -- said that having same-sex parents is worse than having a parent in prison.

Every time anti-gay sentiment is spewed by politicians, there are young gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people who witness it and feel that much more worthless and rejected. Parallel to the hate we've seen coming from GOP politicians over the past year or so were the reports of suicides of LGBT teens due to bullying. You don't have to be a social scientist to connect the hate coming from prominent figures in our culture with that spewed by the bullies in our schools and by the bashers in our streets.

This primary season has shown us how much more work we have to do in attaining as well as preserving rights, even though we think we've come so far. The upside is that that it's been a wake-up call not just to women, LGBT Americans, Latinos, and others who've had concern over the GOP rhetoric, but to everyone who supports equality.