By the end, Newt Gingrich’s aides almost considered it a mercy that the campaign was over. In the final weeks, the candidate was, literally, coming up lame. Since last summer, Gingrich’s right Achilles’ tendon has been slightly torn, but in order to keep his hectic schedule, he left it untreated. On the trail, Gingrich’s limp became more evident each passing week.
“For a guy who’s not known for being in shape, he’s physically tough,” says Joe DeSantis, one of Gingrich’s senior advisers. “He’ll walk miles. He’s been walking around with this torn tendon. It probably needs surgery, and he’s just walking around with it. Why? Because he won’t take time off. And he still carries his own bags. He won’t let other people help him.”
DeSantis spoke with National Review Online on Tuesday afternoon, in a sparsely furnished corner office on the ninth floor of a nondescript office building in Arlington, Va. Along with the rest of the Gingrich campaign, the 33-year-old Republican operative is packing up. Books, papers, laptops, and files lined the hallway; sullen interns hauled bags of trash. The phones were silent.
But on DeSantis’s desk, below snapshots of his 18-month-old son, one item went untouched: an unopened bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. It was given to him by one of the campaign’s consultants months ago, when a Gingrich victory was a long shot but within the realm of possibility. Next to the whiskey is an empty plastic cup. “We were going to crack it open if we won,” he says wistfully.
Gingrich will officially suspend his campaign this afternoon at the Hilton, across the street from this office, surrounded by his family, his friends, and his staff. The event, which was officially announced yesterday, surprises no one. Gingrich may be officially leaving the race today, but he has been out of contention for the Republican presidential nomination for over a month, if not longer.
When former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum won the Louisiana primary in late March, DeSantis acknowledges, it was a devastating loss for the former Georgia congressman, who had touted his strength in the Deep South. Coming mere days after the former Speaker of the House stumbled in Alabama and Mississippi, it was a near knockout. Earlier in the year, Gingrich had won South Carolina and Georgia, but beyond that, he was on a cold streak. The debts were mounting, as were the doubts.
The reason the campaign persisted, DeSantis says, was that Gingrich and his top aides had decided to shift gears — focusing on the Republican National Convention in Tampa, not on competing nationally. In late March, DeSantis recalls, “Newt made a conference call to several of us and said, ‘Look, you need to understand that Mitt Romney is almost certainly going to be the nominee, but I do think there is a shot for an open-convention scenario.’ So,” DeSantis went on, “he said, ‘I think there is a reason to stay in, to take a shot.’ He told us that if he could be an effective voice for conservatism there, it’d be worth it.”
After that conference call with the senior staff, Gingrich followed up with individual calls to his inner circle, from longtime aide and friend Vince Haley to former Pennsylvania congressman Bob Walker, his confidant ever since the pair served together as House Republicans. It was an uncomfortable and emotional period in Newt World, since many loyal staffers were being let go, because of the dwindling funds. But Gingrich, who had seen his campaign collapse only to rise again, wasn’t ready to quit.
“When he called everyone individually, he said, ‘If this isn’t what you signed up for, you can take off,’” DeSantis says. “He said he’d understand completely, that he wouldn’t hold it against anybody.” Gingrich wasn’t simply transitioning from a national campaign to a smaller one — he was mounting a last-gasp personal quest for history, an effort to shake up the convention and the Republican party. At 68 years old, Gingrich knew it was a quixotic strategy, almost fanciful, but after being burned for months for promoting outsized policy ideas, he wanted to leave the race as he entered it: spiting the political establishment.
Gingrich, DeSantis adds, also takes the idea of citizenship very seriously, even though his mention of this theme has garnered little, if any, attention from the national media. The candidate stayed in through April, DeSantis says, partly because of a personal desire to fight on, but also because he liked the idea of being a citizen-candidate, with few dollars, tangling with the Romney machine about policy proposals. If he could do that in Tampa on the convention floor, it would be a way for him to weave his many public-policy solutions into the platform. He wouldn’t be the nominee, and he would be an unlikely pick for vice president, but he would, he hoped, have a say.
After Romney swept the Maryland and Wisconsin primaries in early April, however, Gingrich’s dream began to fade. Santorum, his fellow Romney challenger, was struggling to generate enthusiasm in his home state of Pennsylvania, and Gingrich was doing even worse. Publicly, Gingrich stuck to his “Fight until Tampa” story, but privately, things were much more fluid. “Influencing the platform isn’t the same as trying to win the presidency,” is the way DeSantis puts it.
Money became increasingly tight. The headquarters here in Arlington, which once held four staffers in each cramped office, was now nearly bare, save for a few finance folks and the remaining senior team. Even with the light operation, the debt continued to climb, inching past $4 million. Gingrich was adamant that he would eventually pay it off, via fundraisers and appeals. In conference calls from the campaign trail, he ruled out making a deal with Romney to pay it off. “But we came to a point in mid-April where he decided to not add any more debt,” DeSantis says. “We were barely breaking even and we didn’t really have an operating budget. So that’s why we ended up looking at Delaware,” which held its primary on April 24, along with Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
It is a tiny state, but to the Gingrich campaign, DeSantis says, that was perfect. They didn’t have the resources to compete in the other late-April primaries, where you needed both an air war and a ground game to put up a fight. “By then, we were still on the convention strategy, so what we were looking for, more than anything, was momentum,” he says. “It’s a cheap train ride up there from D.C., and you can have a lot of impact by just showing up. It’s a cheap state to campaign in. We needed a win to propel us into North Carolina, where we thought we had a shot, if we could get some resources. But we needed something to get us some money to move on.
“A close second in Delaware would have been like Bill Clinton coming in second in New Hampshire in 1992,” DeSantis adds. “It would have fired up our base and we would have played it like we had won the whole thing.”
Of course, this didn’t happen. Gingrich was stomped by Romney in the First State, garnering only 27 percent of the vote to Romney’s 56 percent. Gingrich’s retail-heavy campaign had drawn some notice, along with the endorsements of various Delaware GOP leaders who had soured on Romney, but it was not enough.
What made the Delaware slide even more troubling to the Gingrich camp was that they hadn’t been able to build an anti-Romney coalition after Santorum left the race in mid-April. Gingrich had actually picked up some online donations after Santorum’s departure, mostly from small-dollar donors, and that money helped to sustain the campaign. Yet the cash didn’t amount to much, other than helping with travel bills and some robo-calls. Santorum’s exit didn’t create an opening — Romney was still on his upward trajectory, with Gingrich looking on, and poor.
The night before the Delaware primary, Gingrich met with his team down the hall from the campaign’s war room in Arlington, in a corner office that’s lined with history books and Gingrich’s own novels and memoirs. The polling looked ominous. Gingrich was going to lose, and he’d probably lose big, they predicted, so the discussion centered upon the calendar. The question on everyone’s lips: Could they afford to stay in through May? What would the consequences of that be, especially in terms of the debt?
The group batted it around for awhile. Some members of the senior staff wanted Gingrich to battle on; others were ready to close shop. Eventually, after a healthy debate, the reality of the situation settled in. It was over. By Tuesday night, Gingrich began to say as much in his public remarks, telling reporters on the Newt beat that the situation was being “reassessed.” The campaign, or what was left it, began to mull how to close up, DeSantis says. The plan was to wait a week before officially suspending the campaign, because Gingrich wanted his grandchildren with him when he made his speech, and the Georgia-based kids, Maggie and Robert, were unable to come to Washington until early May.
Gingrich also wanted some time, between Delaware and his farewell, to huddle with Team Romney, looking at how he could help them. He wanted to discuss policy, the convention, and their outlook before he officially left, and especially before he gave an endorsement. Gingrich had told Romney over breakfast in Louisiana in late March that he would support the nominee, but he wasn’t jumping to do it immediately. He wanted to hear what Romney and his people had to say.
Romney promptly called Gingrich on Wednesday morning, April 25. “From what I understand, it went pretty well,” DeSantis says. The former rivals agreed to work together, and Romney told Gingrich that he’d send his campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, along with his policy director, Lanhee Chen, to meet personally with Gingrich and his team in Arlington to discuss Gingrich’s ideas and opportunities to contribute to the message and the general-election campaign.
Meanwhile, Gingrich attended a few scheduled events in North Carolina, but by then, the impending suspension was public knowledge. After the brief southern trip, he and his wife, Callista, returned to their home in McLean, Va., caught up with friends and family, and began the process of wrapping up the campaign, from its phone-bank center near Atlanta to the staff and their salaries. On Saturday, April 28, Gingrich, perhaps signaling a return to the Beltway circuit, attended the White House Correspondents Association dinner, and was cheerful throughout the evening, according to fellow attendees. On Monday, April 30, Rhoades and Chen had an agreeable meeting in Arlington with Gingrich, who expressed his willingness to endorse.
It is the end of a grueling process. “What I always find remarkable is [Gingrich’s] ability to work while tired,” DeSantis says. “Newt figured out how to take five-minute naps to get him through a 16-hour day. You see him exhausted, about to shut down, and then he can flip a switch and be completely animated and alive. Then, when he leaves, he knows how to grab a nap right after an event. I’m not a doctor, but there’s got to be something in his physical constitution that allows him to operate without sleep.”
A minute before we part, DeSantis shuffles some papers. The suit jacket he wore for much of the past year hangs nearby, gathering dust. He’s in a white short-sleeved shirt, jeans, and loafers. Vince Haley and R. C. Hammond, Gingrich’s press secretary, are grabbing coffee down the street. They’re in casual garb, too, as are the interns and tech staffers, who are quiet as they wheel boxes of material, piled atop metal dollies, out of the building. In a few weeks, Gingrich’s production company will move into this space. He’ll go back to making historical documentaries, writing books, and helping Republican candidates. The vast consulting empire he once oversaw has disappeared. What’s left, other than some posters and framed pictures of Newt’s glory days, is a small group of youthful staffers — Haley, DeSantis, and Hammond — who stuck by their boss for a year, through massive highs and depressing lows. DeSantis, leaning against his wall, musing about what’s next, won’t open the bottle, but he pauses and smiles. A toast, he says, to all of it.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.