GOP Strategist: Republican Establishment Fears Down-Ballot Disaster If Newt Wins Nomination

On the heels of Newt Gingrich’s trouncing of Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary, Republican Party brass are privately expressing deep concerns that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s high unfavorable rating in national polls could prove catastrophic to the so-called “down ballot”–the House and Senate races under the presidential race–and may even threaten the Republican Party’s control of the House of Representatives.

GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, who previously served as Sen. John McCain’s senior campaign strategist, told MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow that if Mr. Gingrich wins next week’s Florida GOP primary, there will be “a panic and a meltdown of the Republican establishment that is beyond my ability to articulate in the English language. People will go crazy.”

Mr. Schmidt said he believes Mr. Gingrich’s near universal name recognition indicates that perceptions of Mr. Gingrich have calcified over time and are therefore unlikely to change. With a national unfavorable rating that he puts at 60 percent, Mr. Schmidt says he believes a Gingrich candidacy could spell disaster for Republican hopes of holding the House and regaining the Senate.

Newt Gingrich has a 100% name ID, has a 60% national unfavorable number and it’s a number so high that with the 100% name ID it’s impossible to come back from. You’re not electable in a general election, in a 2012 presidential election if your unfavorable numbers are that high. Particularly against a president, that while vulnerable, is still a net positive in that number. So people look at Newt Gingrich and don’t see him as a plausible candidate in the general election, so the Republican establishment who thinks that the president is vulnerable and beatable is going to begin to melt down if Gingrich’s momentum continues.

Also something important to remember there are 33 House Republicans in districts that Barack Obama won. What is the impact in terms of Republicans being able to keep the House of Representatives in majority control if Newt Gingrich was the nominee of the party? What is the impact in the United State Senate races where Republicans have a great chance of taking majority control of the United States Senate? With Newt Gingrich as the nominee of the party, that is, perhaps, all up in the air.

But an ABC News poll taken last December found Mr. Gingrich’s unfavorable rating (48 percent) was almost identical to that of President Barack Obama (49 percent). The same poll, however, found that Mr. Obama’s favorable rating (48 percent) was 13 points higher than that of Mr. Gingrich (35 percent).

Still, other conservative commentators, like editor and CNN contributor Erick Erickson, dismiss the dire GOP establishment’s soundings of doom as little more than fear that a Gingrich candidacy might diminish their influence and power within the Republican Party:

The buzz in Washington now is that the Republican Establishment fears Gingrich will cause them to lose the House and not get the Senate. Put another way, the current Republican leadership fears that the man who helped the GOP take back the House for the first time in 40 years and his allies in the tea party who helped take back the House in 2010 will cause the GOP to now lose.

They’ll lose alright — they’ll lose power to others. That’s their real fear.

However, other conservative commentators like bestselling author Ann Coulter believe that the voters of South Carolina made a colossal mistake:

Apparently, South Carolinians would rather have the emotional satisfaction of a snotty remark toward the president than to beat Obama in the fall. We saw it in the debates when Gingrich would say things that didn’t really make sense. That is what you usually associate with Democrats, which I described in my last book, Demonic: How Mobs Behave…With Newt Gingrich, you throw out the baby and you keep the bath water.

For his part, Mr. Gingrich appears to be embracing his role in having stirred up a hornet’s nest among those in the GOP establishment. During an appearance on Meet the Press the morning after his South Carolina primary victory, Mr. Gingrich said:

The establishment is right to be worried about a Gingrich nomination….We are going to make the establishment very uncomfortable. We are going to demand real change in Washington….I’m happy to be in the tradition of Ronald Reagan as the outsider who scares the Republican establishment. And frankly, after the mess they made of things, maybe they should be shaken up pretty badly.

But, as New York Daily News writer Tom DeFrank writes:

The prospect of Gingrich carrying the GOP torch against Obama is anathema to party elders, who know his undisciplined side and personal baggage.

They understand Romney’s strong suit is electability, while Gingrich’s Achilles heel is unelectability.

“Newt’s absolutely brilliant,” recalled an admirer who negotiated with him in Congress. “He has 100 ideas; 97 are real good, the other three will blow up the world.”

So look for more party leaders currently “neutral-for-Romney” to get off the fence to inoculate against a Gingrich surge.

“Newt means losing 45 states,” a Mitt-leaning GOPer told the Daily News. “It would be a catastrophe for the country.”

Whether the GOP establishment’s fear that a Gingrich presidential candidacy might result in a Goldwater-esque shellacking is serious or merely election year bluster, one thing is certain: the anti-establishment sensibility of the Tea Party specifically, and the nation more broadly, are real. Whether these forces–combined with Mr. Gingrich’s newfound momentum–will be enough to overtake Mr. Romney’s current lead in next week’s Florida GOP primary remains to be seen.