In the growing ranks of candidates who have soared to the top of the polls as the not–Mitt Romney contender, long-time Washington insider Newt Gingrich appears at first glance to be one of the least likely tea-party crusaders yet. As Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, puts it, “He’s not a great not-Romney candidate, because he has flipflopped on a lot of the major issues.”
Chris Chocola, president of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, describes Gingrich’s record as a mix of “hiccups” and impressive accomplishments. “Newt Gingrich is an advocate of limited government and free-market solutions, except when he’s not,” Chocola says. “He has overall a very good record, but he has some blemishes. He was a big advocate of [Medicare] Part D. He flirted with climate change when he appeared in a commercial with Nancy Pelosi.”
“He believes in limited government,” Chocola adds, “but he believes in smart government, and he thinks he’s the smart guy who can figure out where government can insert itself in a productive way, which leads to some inconsistencies.”
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, distinguishes between Gingrich past and Gingrich present. Gingrich’s record, Norquist says, has certain “problems,” such as “compromises with the Clinton administration and compromises with the Republican Senate.”
But that’s not the Gingrich who is running for president now. “In terms of where he’s looking to go,” Norquist says, “I think most conservatives would be very happy with his flat-rate income-tax plan, his good proposal for reforming Social Security and Medicare, pro-market reforms in health care — it’s all very good stuff. I don’t know anything that he’s talking about now that isn’t in the center of where Reagan Republicans would be. If you’re judging him on where he’s going and how he sees the future, he and Rick Perry and the other Republicans are generally moving in the same direction.”
The Tea Party Patriots’ Meckler calls Gingrich’s record “a very mixed bag,” citing the Pelosi commercial and the endorsement of liberal Republican Dede Scozzafavva over Conservative-party nominee Doug Hoffman in the 2009 special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district. “He’s made some major gaffes for someone who’s supposed to be a conservative leader. It’s hard to argue that somebody else is a flipflopper if you don’t nail Newt for the same thing,” Meckler says.
But right now, Gingrich is backed by 35 percent of self-identified tea-party Republicans, making him by far the most popular candidate among tea partiers. Only two other candidates registered double-digit support from tea partiers in the Fox News poll released last week: Herman Cain (20 percent) and Mitt Romney (15 percent).
One reason for Gingrich’s popularity may be the way he has courted tea partiers. “Newt has been reaching out to tea partiers all across the country for pretty much the past two and a half years,” says Amy Kremer, co-chairman of Tea Party Express. “American Solutions [a Gingrich organization] was involved with the Tax Day tea party in 2009. He has been reaching out, and I’ve seen a growing number of people supporting him.”
That puts Gingrich in marked contrast to Romney, who has for the most part neither criticized nor courted tea partiers and has attended only one explicitly tea-party event so far in the campaign, a Tea Party Express gathering in New Hampshire in September.