Newt Gingrich’s rapid rise in the GOP’s Whac-a-Mole primary makes him the latest ‘Not Romney’ frontrunner. But can Gingrich earn the support of Tea Party activists like the other ‘Not Romneys’ before him?
An ABC News headline screams, “Democrats Blast Newt Gingrich in First Video Ad as ‘Original Tea Partier.’” CNN claims “strong support from the tea party movement is contributing to the former House speaker's surge among likely Republican primary voters and caucus-goers.”
But two politicians supported by Tea Party activists say, "Not so fast."
Sentaor Rand Paul says he knows the Tea Party movement. And Newt Gingrich is no Tea Party guy. Rep. Michelle Bachmann goes even further suggesting Gingrich is a Romney-esque ‘Not Romney.’
“If you look at Newt/Romney, they were for ObamaCare principles,” she said at Saturday’s presidential debate. “If you look at Newt/Romney, they were for cap and trade … And if you look at Newt/Romney, they were for the $700 billion bailout.”
Gingrich and Romney also share a record of being flexible with political principles. Rep. Ron Paul’s campaign recently released a sharply focused ad calling Gingrich a serial hypocrite. The Democrat National Committee chose a carpet bombing strategy, releasing a 4-minute video that is nothing short of the Magnum Opus for Mitt Romney Flip Flops.
So how does one flip-flopping candidate who has argued to expand the size and scope of government earn the interest of the Tea Party while the other does not?
“Newt and Mitt are more Hamiltonian than Jeffersonian,” explains Michael Patrick Leahy, an organizer, author and co-founder of the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. “The difference is that Newt will talk to the Tea Parties.”
Romney’s refusal to meet with Tea Party groups has hurt his campaign across the country. In Florida, where Romney placed third in an early straw poll, Tea Party activists helped Cain score the early victory that briefly propelled his campaign to the top tier.
“Cain was all over Florida. He surprised everybody, but he didn’t surprise me,” said Ryan Hecker, a Tea Party activist in Texas who has risen through the ranks to become the chief operating officer of Freedomworks for America. “Cain was having individual Tea Party dinners throughout Florida. That was his focus: Get Tea Party support.”
Months later, the Romney campaign still hasn’t learned the lesson. “Mitt Romney will not give us the time of day,” explains Billie Tucker, co-founder of First Coast Tea Party in Florida.
“We may not be his base,” she says, with an emphasis on his. “But we’re a big group.” That statement belies the success of Florida Tea Party activists in building support and electing candidates like Rep. Allen West , Senator Marco Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott.
Romney’s inside-the-Beltway inevitability campaign isn’t winning over Tea Partiers either. “Mitt Romney tried to latch onto the Tea Party and it wasn’t warranted,” explains Greg Fettig, an Indiana activist and co-founder America Refocused. “When the media wants him and the GOP establishment wants him, that’s a problem.”
Can Hamiltonian Gingrich earn enough Tea Party support to defeat Hamiltonian Romney?
“Gingrich is relevant to the Tea Party,” says Hecker, citing how Gingrich’s staff worked with Tea Party groups to build the movement. Gingrich also promoted Hecker’s innovative, grassroots project, The Contract From America. Tea Party activists also give Gingrich credit for signing on to the Tax Day Tea Party in 2009, which helped give the movement legitimacy.
“Gingrich has been very clever in using the energy of the movement to propel his campaign in ways that Romney has just been tone deaf,” Leahy says. Though he is skeptical Gingrich can overcome some of the bad ideas produced in the past, “He’s an inconsistent idea factory, which is part of the problem.”
Stephen Kruiser and Tony Katz are California-based Tea Party activists. Kruiser boasts an audience of more than 133,000 Twitter followers, making him a one-man Tea Party when he’s not speaking at events across the country. “If I have to support Newt, I will,” he says, but adds, “I think most people in the Tea Party movement can embrace Newt solely because he’s not Mitt.”
Katz, a talk radio host and Tea Party organizer says Gingrich can earn something from the Tea Party that Romney cannot, “I think the Tea Party can have serious philosophical differences with Newt. But he can earn the respect of the Tea Party. Newt’s not defensive when he’s defending his positions and he’s big into Reagan’s 80-20 rule.”
Katz explains that even though some of Gingrich’s past, present, and future policies might not be congruent with Tea Party core principles, Tea Party activists should like his style. “There’s some rugged individualism with Newt and that will set him apart from Romney.”
But if Newt wants to translate the current interest from Tea Party activists into actual votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond, Kruiser says Newt has to declare his position right now and define who he is.
“He has to say, ‘I’m standing with you now. I’m not going to pivot.’” Kruiser adds, “He has to do what he did with his personal life. Tell us he’s changed religions and he’s not the man he used to be.”
Hecker has two words of advice for the candidate, “Be humble.”
“Recognize and give credit to the Tea Party movement for your rise,” Hecker adds, cautioning against any impression of inevitability. “The movement is supporting Gingrich because it wants a real conservative in the White House. And that’s not Romney.”
Perhaps Gingrich’s best chance to win Tea Party support and find a path to victory in 2012 means he has to be both ‘Not Romney’ and ‘Not Newt.’
The former executive producer of PJTV, Owen Brennan covered the Tea Party movement since it began. He is also a former speechwriter for Mayor Giuliani and a former producer for Bill O’Reilly. Owen is now a writer and producer in Los Angeles. He can be reached at OWBrennan@gmail.com.