Newt Gingrich is trying to win over the Tea Party. Unlike Mitt Romney, who—being despised by many Tea Party activists and leaders—generally avoids encounters with them, Gingrich sees the Tea Party movement as a potential part of his primary coalition. His campaign manager for South Carolina, Adam Waldeck, has worked heavily on Tea Party outreach in other states, spreading Gingrich’s message to Tea Party leaders and inviting them to share their concerns and ideas.
But how does the Tea Party feel about Gingrich? Decidedly mixed. On the one hand, he embodies much of what they loathe about politics: a career politician who has lobbied on behalf of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Gingrich has profited from his political influence, and he earned a rebuke from the House Ethics Committee while he was Speaker of the House in 1996. He also has taken many positions in the past that may alarm them, most notably filming a commercial with Nancy Pelosi endorsing action against climate change, and most recently calling for a “humane” policy towards illegal immigrants.
On the other hand, Gingrich’s political persona is much more appealing to movement conservatives than Romney’s. He is a determined partisan who throws rhetorical firebombs. And unlike, say, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann, he has a high enough IQ and a deep enough knowledge base to make the conservative case against Obama in complete, often coherent, sentences.
“Even if a conservative or Republican finds things annoying about the guy, which nearly all of us do, he’s able to articulate a perspective that taps into the set of political concerns and worldviews that we to some extent have and share,” says Soren Dayton, a Republican political consultant. “I think he’s probably the most effective person at explaining Republican and conservative grievances.”
Those mixed feelings are echoed by Tea Party leaders, who say they remain open to supporting Gingrich in the primaries, despite his apostasies. “There are a lot of very strong fiscally conservative elements in Gingrich’s record and platform, and there are question marks, especially relating to environmental issues like cap-and-trade and his involvement with Republicans for Environmental Protection,” says Phil Kerpen vice-president for policy of Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party–aligned group. “As with anyone, it’s a mixed bag. But there’s a lot for fiscal conservatives to like there.”
On Saturday Gingrich held a town hall hosted by the Staten Island Tea Party in New York. Gingrich spoke in front of the oddly appropriate fake Roman columns of a Hilton Garden Inn ballroom that is clearly designed for weddings. The audience was composed largely of what were once called Reagan Democrats: middle-class and working-class white Catholics. Everyone I spoke to says they consistently vote Republican in presidential elections, even though some were registered Democrats or Independents. Some preferred Romney to Gingrich because they perceive him as more electable, but all shared an antipathy for Obama and plan to vote any Republican presidential nominee in 2012. The overwhelming sense of grievance was classic Tea Party backlash politics: the anger of older whites over what they perceive as profligate social spending on wayward youth and other undeserving moochers.
“I’ve been a Democrat all my life,” said Auggie Ruggiero, a retired longshoreman. “That used to mean the party of working people, now it’s the party of not-working people, people who want nothing but hand-outs.” Roseanne Parragano said she worries that young people, such as her three sons currently in college, “are convinced they won’t get a job.” Her husband George is concerned about illegal immigration, which he blames for overburdening the American healthcare system. The speech was preceded by the Pledge of Allegiance, with one crowd member adding “born and unborn” after the phrase “liberty and justice for all.”