Lesson to Future Republican Hopefuls: The Tea Party Matters

In late 2011, long before the first caucuses and primaries of the 2012 election, I had the opportunity to speak with someone high up in Mitt Romney’s finance world, and warned him that the conservative base wasn’t warming to the party’s presumptive nominee. The longer Romney keeps the Tea Party at arm’s length, I said, the tougher his chances at winning the general election, presuming he can win the Republican nomination first.

Nonsense, I was told. Those people will all come around in the general election. They will vote for Romney to get rid of Obama. 

Perhaps, I answered. But don’t be so sure--right now there are some who would rather sit through another four years of Obama than endure a Republican who they imagine will sell them out at the first opportunity. The time for Romney reach out to the conservative base is now, before it is too late. 

In the end, Romney did not reach out. Many in the Tea Party grass roots did, eventually, back the Republican nominee. Many came to like and admire Romney, especially after his strong performance in the debates. The renewed enthusiasm of conservatives for the political fight encouraged many--myself included--to believe Republicans would see strong turnout at the polls. But there were millions who had checked out already.

The traditional pattern is for candidates to appeal to their party’s base in the primary and then to pivot to the center in the general election. The danger is that statements made in the primary will be used against the candidate later. 

But the danger of not appealing to the base is that they will vote for other candidates, or stay home. Romney both feared association with the Tea Party and knew that he faced a weak field. So he held back.

Romney had bought into the mainstream media hype about the Tea Party--which reached a fever pitch of hysteria during the debt ceiling negotiations of July 2011. He saw association with the Tea Party as potentially toxic, and limited his contact with the movement. The suspicion was mutual, and there were a few early protests by Tea Party groups against him. He did little to heal the breach until he had won the nomination.

Contrary to mainstream media spin, Romney never really “ran right” in the primary. The one issue on which he took an awkwardly hard line was immigration. He did so partly to thwart challenges by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (whose reformist policy, while defensible, suffered from the assumption that those who opposed it were heartless). It was the one issue on which he felt forced to toughen up.

Romney likely paid for that hard line in the general election, bleeding Hispanic votes to President Barack Obama, even losing among Cuban-Americans in Florida, traditionally a solid Republican constituency. Had Romney solidified his bona fides with the GOP’s conservative grass roots, he may not have felt the need to overreach on immigration. He also might have enjoyed a shorter primary.

And in the end, Romney lost what were probably Tea Party votes, as well as a potential army of Tea Party volunteers (some of whom showed up anyway and were responsible for his strong showing in places like Roanoke, VA). The GOP even let CNN appropriate the Tea Party label, running its own “Tea Party” debate. A few Tea Party candidates did win--others lost badly--but the movement never really mobilized. 

Lesson for the future: ignore the Tea Party grass roots at your peril.


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