WASHINGTON — Two days after Newt Gingrich defeated Mitt Romney in the South Carolina presidential primary one of Romney’s big-name backers offered a grim prediction for his fellow Republicans.
“The possibility of Newt Gingrich being our nominee against Barack Obama I think is essentially handing the election over to Obama,” former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty told reporters on a Jan. 23 conference call. “I think that’s shared by a lot of folks in the Republican Party.”
Pawlenty’s comments echoed those being uttered publicly and behind the scenes by elected Republicans, party activists, fundraisers and pundits, who represent a portion of the party establishment — a “stop-Newt” caucus — populated largely by people who have known the former House speaker for decades.
The question is: Can they?
For two decades, the Republican Party has seen an erosion of its traditional, top-down hierarchy, a decline aided by Gingrich himself in 1990 when he led a House revolt against a budget agreement negotiated by President George H.W. Bush that raised taxes. The rise of the anti-tax tea party wing in 2009 splintered the internal levers of power further, making it even harder to impose a choice on the rank-and file.
“There really is no Republican establishment left that can control anything,” said Matthew Dowd, a onetime aide to President George W. Bush and now a Bloomberg Television contributor. “Some try to act like they are in charge, but the fraternity is now running the campus.”
Those dynamics were on display in South Carolina. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, lost by 12 percentage points even after campaigning throughout the state with Gov. Nikki Haley and just a day after receiving the endorsement of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Haley, who rose to power with tea party backing, didn’t deliver either her state or its grassroots activists.
Meanwhile, Gingrich’s campaign gained momentum after Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who also has support from the tea party faction, said she’d vote for Gingrich in South Carolina if only to extend the length of the primary.
Similar signs of an insurgence came to light in the 2010 midterm elections, when Nevada voters tapped Sharron Angle — a tea party-endorsed politician opposed by many of the state’s prominent Republicans — to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. And Delaware Republicans chose Christine O’Donnell over former governor and nine-term Rep. Mike Castle to seek an open Senate seat. Both Angle and O’Donnell lost.
“The voters are now in charge, and Republican leaders need to come to terms with that,” Dowd said. “The media needs to drop the myth that there is a Republican establishment capable of orchestrating anything more than a one-float GOP parade.”
Romney’s campaign, backed by well-known party strategists and fundraisers, has kept up a steady rollout of endorsement announcements from Republican elected leaders that demonstrate his broad support among the insiders. As of Jan. 20, he had the nods of five governors, 14 senators and 59 House members. That compares with two governors and a dozen congressmen who have endorsed Gingrich, according to Democracy in Action, a political web site that tracks endorsements.
“There are a lot of major players in the Republican Party who are terrified about Newt,” said Gary Gerstle, a specialist on social and political movements a Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “At a more conventional moment in American politics, the establishment would count for a lot more, but this is not a conventional moment. There are now big segments of the Republican Party that will not bow down to the establishment.”
Gingrich, who served 20 years in Congress, four of them as speaker, and then began a lucrative career in Washington consulting on federal policy, has been working to turn party leaders’ angst about his candidacy to his advantage, portraying himself as a candidate feared by the ruling class.
In a Jan. 24 message to supporters, he wrote, “The establishment is right to be worried about a Gingrich nomination because a Gingrich nomination means that we’re going to change things.”
The Romney-Gingrich face-off is bringing the simmering power struggle between the Republican grassroots and the party establishment to the fore, said Richard Viguerie, a veteran Republican direct-mail strategist and the chairman of ConservativeHQ.com.
“There is a war going on here between the grassroots and the establishment,” said Viguerie, who is backing former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. “People in the grassroots see the Republican establishment as part of the problem, not part of the solution, and Gingrich has the ability to go over the heads of the Republican leaders.”
At the root of the concern about Gingrich is whether he will be able to appeal to the broader electorate. Polls indicate that he has high unfavorability ratings and wouldn’t fare well in a head-to-head matchup against Obama. A January Gallup study found that all national political figures are viewed negatively. Still, “Americans have become more intensely negative in their evaluations of Newt Gingrich — who now has the lowest score overall,” the study concluded.
Gingrich’s branding of Obama as a “food stamp president,” for example, may not play well with independent voters, whom a Republican nominee would have to win over to have a chance of ousting the president.
Some prominent Republicans say there’s not yet enough of a consensus that Gingrich is unelectable to give rise to a concerted effort among party operatives to thwart his ascent.
“I haven’t seen that there’s an all-hands-on-deck movement to try to block any candidate — Newt or anyone else,” said Frank Donatelli, the chairman of GOPAC, a training organization for state and local Republican candidates once headed by Gingrich, and a former top party official.
The last time there was such an effort was in 1996, he added, after Pat Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary and prominent Republicans quickly coalesced around Bob Dole, who ultimately claimed the nomination.
“I haven’t heard that kind of alarm emanating about Newt,” Donatelli said.
Former representative Bob Walker, a senior adviser to Gingrich’s campaign, said each time Romney rolls out a new endorsement or dispatches a one-time colleague to criticize Gingrich’s record, it bolsters the former speaker’s argument to voters that he’s their ally against a party machine that doesn’t care about them.
“It took them a little bit of time to realize that Newt Gingrich is capable of beating Obama, but now, I don’t think that they’re going to listen to party bosses anymore,” Walker said. “Newt is basically channeling the people’s anger.”