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.
And, as Kremer suggests, there are many tea partiers who view Gingrich favorably. Take Andrew Hemingway, who now is Gingrich’s New Hampshire state director. Back in September, Hemingway, then chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire (he was not affiliated with or paid by the Gingrich campaign at the time), protested Romney’s presence at the Tea Party Express event. “The Tea Party in New Hampshire is determined to help elect a candidate dedicated to this country’s founding principles of limited government, individual responsibility, and individual freedom,” Hemingway told ABC News regarding his opposition. “Mitt Romney is clearly not that candidate.”
Hemingway, who joined the Gingrich campaign last month, sees his new boss as nothing like Romney. “I think that Newt’s record as speaker of the House is tea-party. I think that Newt really was one of the original tea partiers,” Hemingway argues. “He led a nationwide movement, and brought about an enormous wave of Republican power, and not just Republican, but really conservative, with the Contract for America. He shrank the size of government, and he decreased the deficit by close to $5 trillion in four years as Speaker. He is tea-party.”
It’s a different story in Iowa, where Charlie Gruschow, chairman of Tea Party for America, sees no sign from conversations he has had or e-mails he has received that Gingrich is attracting tea-party voters. “The three people I see who are the most attractive to tea-party members in Iowa are Ron Paul to some degree, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain,” he observes.
Gruschow, who is himself a Cain supporter, says he thinks Gingrich is “a brilliant man, a tremendous historian, and saying all the right things right now.” But he worries that a President Gingrich couldn’t be trusted to “do the right thing.”
“In the past, he’s been willing to make deals,” Gruschow says. “I’m true-blue tea-party — we need fewer deals cut and more action taken to reduce spending, reduce the size of government, and get our economy moving.”
Kremer, by contrast, says, “What the tea-party movement wants is somebody who has the ideas and solutions to turn us back around and get the economy back on track; that’s what it’s all about. And a lot of people believe that he does have ideas and solutions that could help, that he understands where we are and what got us here and what we need to do to fix it.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.