Newt Gingrich’s stunning 40% to 28% victory over Mitt Romney in today’s South Carolina Republican Presidential primary is more a Tea Party slap down of Romney than a complete embrace of Gingrich. The victory was so clear that Fox News called the race seconds after the polls closed at 7 pm eastern time. I’ve written previously in this space that the two GOP frontrunners are both more Big Government Hamiltonians than limited government, tea party aligned Jeffersonians.
While both candidates are far superior to the Constitution-busting collectivist currently occupying the White House, it would be highly inaccurate to call either candidate a consistent supporter of the Tea Party’s three core values of constitutionally limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility.
Wasn’t that Newt Gingrich just the other day bashing Romney for his years operating as a free market capitalist at Bain Capital? Isn’t he the same guy who took over $1.5 million in fees from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, endorsed RINO Dede Scozzafava in NY-23, sat on the global warming couch with Nancy Pelosi, clasped arms with Al Sharpton to promote more expansive Department of Education programs, and enthusiastically supported President Bush’s budget breaking pharmaceutical benefits give-away in 2003?
And isn’t that the same Mitt Romney who introduced RomneyCare to Massachusetts, the model for Obamacare, supported the TARP bailout, the Stimulus Package, at one time supported cap and trade like policies, and counts John McCain among his supporters?
But, as the old pros often say, “politics ain’t bean bag,” and modern political candidates are neither Jesus nor John Locke. They are ambitious men with personal agendas who can be persuaded to do the right thing by forceful political pressure applied at the right place and time by savvy conservatives.
What distinguishes Gingrich from Romney is less policy than style and tactics.
Stylistically, he loves to attack, and, as his decimation of John King in Thursday’s debate illustrates, he’s quite good at it.
Tactically, he’s figured out something that the buttoned down Romney, practitioner of the corporate model of hierarchical decision making, has missed entirely.
The energy and passion in Republican politics today is found in abundant supply–and almost exclusively–in the Tea Party movement. While Romney has dismissed and ignored it entirely, Gingrich has cultivated and successfully used it. To be fair, the movement itself has used Gingrich to its advantage, as it did in March, 2009 when he and his American Solutions group were invited by three small online conservative activist groups to co-sponsor what became the hugely successful Tax Day Tea Party rallies of 1 million Americans held in 900 cities on April 15, 2009.
But Gingrich is not a champion of the Tea Party’s core values. He is, like most politicians, the champion of his own ambitions. He’s spent his career crafting political coalitions, and he sees the Tea Party movement as yet another interest group to be manipulated to support his personal goal of securing the most powerful job in the world.
While Romney’s campaign staff ignored endorsements from a handful of local tea party groups, as well as offers to campaign for him in South Carolina, the Gingrich campaign has made a concerted effort to engage with and obtain support from South Carolina tea party leaders. Allen Olsen, the former leader of the Columbia, South Carolina Tea Party, was an early Gingrich supporter in that state, for instance. Joe Dugan, leader of a tea party group in Myrtle Beach, was another Gingrich backer who helped get-out-the-vote today.
Most of the credit for Gingrich’s South Carolina success must go to young Adam Waldeck, a Gingrich campaign staffer who has loyally followed Gingrich from American Solutions, where he was that group’s “point man” dealing with the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition that sponsored the 2009 Tax Day Tea Party, to South Carolina, where he’s played a key role in nurturing and developing local tea party relationships and endorsements. Another tip of the hat goes to Kellen Giuda, the Tea Party Coalitions Director in the Gingrich campaign who first persuaded Gingrich to be one of the featured speakers at the New York City Tax Day Tea Party event back in April of 2009.
These efforts to court the Tea Party movement paid off in a very big way today in South Carolina. Polls showed that by a margin of 46% to 21%, those primary voters who call themselves supporters of the Tea Party voted for Gingrich over Romney. This provided him with his margin of victory.
Now that it looks like we are set for an extended race to earn the Republican nomination, it’s time for the Tea Party to communicate clearly what it wants from all four of the remaining candidates. We’ll work to help get-out-the-vote in both the primaries and the general election, but all four of these candidates need to earn our support by not only engaging with us and acknowledging our influence, but more importantly by modifying their policies to consistently align with our three core values
For the Romney campaign this means it’s time to start making those phone calls to us. We don’t want to talk to third level staffers. We want to talk candidly and directly with Mitt Romney himself. If you’re not prepared to do that, don’t bother calling.
Because, frankly, our phone lines are already burning up with calls from Newt Gingrich and his campaign team.
Michael Patrick Leahy is the editor of the Voices of the Tea Party e-book series, co-founder of the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, and co-organizer of Election Day Tea Party 2012. His new book, Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement, will be published by Broadside Books in spring, 2012. He can be reached on Twitter at @michaelpleahy .