Is the Tea Party Losing Its Grip on the GOP?

Is the Tea Party Losing Its Grip on the GOP?

By Erin McPike - January 30, 2012

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Newt Gingrich's fast Florida fade is the latest indication that the Tea Party is losing its grip on the GOP, with the establishment poised to triumph once again.

An official endorsement Saturday night from last year's Tea Party standout, Herman Cain; an all-but-official backing from longtime Tea Party darling Sarah Palin; and the support of an increasing number of Tea Party officials around the country have not lifted Gingrich back over Mitt Romney in the Florida polls. That weakened clout has been accompanied by the Republican establishment's full-throttle charge at Gingrich's past -- to great effect with the primary here just one day away.

It’s a stunning twist of fate for the GOP, which just 18 months ago was mired in intraparty battles that gave rise to the grass-roots movement, and which had been desperately seeking anyone but Mitt Romney in the presidential race to satisfy its hard-right turn. Still, if Romney wins here on Tuesday and goes on to clinch the nomination in the coming weeks or months, it may not settle the question of whether he has quieted the Tea Party faithful heading toward the general election.

Its various favorites have failed to take hold. Michele Bachmann was ultimately not seen as credible, Cain was forced out of the race over charges of sexual harassment, and Rick Perry couldn’t pass muster through the debates.

Though Gingrich has embraced the Tea Party -- and many of its leaders have hugged him back -- he doesn’t fit the movement’s mold. The Romney campaign knows this and has had no qualms about highlighting that fact.

From former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the GOP presidential nominee in 1996, to Sen. John McCain, the standard bearer in 2008, a growing number of Republican “insiders” have blasted Gingrich for his slip-ups and judgment lapses during his reign as House speaker.

That would be a risky strategy if Gingrich were a tried-and-true Tea Party candidate who hadn’t spent his time currying favor with Washington’s elite. When the establishment pounded candidates like Rand Paul and Christine O’Donnell in 2010, it backfired, and they won their primaries against Republican officeholders.

And yet, Romney has unleashed every surrogate he’s got to clamp down on Gingrich. McCain, when asked Friday by RealClearPolitics if Romney risked a backlash by employing this strategy, answered, “I think that’s always a risk, but once the Tea Partiers examine his fiscal record, then it’s very hard to get enthusiastic about a guy that supported a bill that had $14 billion in earmarks.”

That’s the difference: The establishment harangued O’Donnell, Paul and Herman Cain for being unqualified, even eccentric. But with Gingrich, “Washington insiders” are reminding everyone that he’s one of them.

Romney himself pointed that out during a Panama City rally Saturday afternoon, noting that Gingrich “was given the opportunity to lead our party.” An audience member shouted back, “He failed.” And Romney responded: “You’re right; he failed. We allowed him to lead our party, and some of us remember, ‘Oh, yeah -- the ‘Contract With America,’ that was a good thing. We took over the House -- that was great news.’ But what happened four years later? He was fined for ethics violations.”

Romney’s campaign has made Gingrich’s time in Washington the centerpiece of its attacks, even using a 1997 news report from the dean of the current news media, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, that detailed Gingrich’s ethics violations in an ad released late Friday.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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