Time is running out for tea party leaders hoping to shake up the GOP presidential nominating process.
In less than two months, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will start to make their choices, and establishment pressures seem increasingly likely to prevail.
Tea party rhetoric has dominated pre-primary jockeying, but conservative activists may decide to sacrifice ideological purity and settle for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in hopes of nominating a candidate who could actually win.
“Political reality sets in for most people who genuinely want change,” said Brad Card, a lobbyist at Dutko Grayling who has already given more than $15,000 this cycle to Republican candidates, including Romney. “Mitt Romney is the one steady in the race — the one comfort blanket.”
The tea party at first seemed to be considering an anyone-but-Romney approach, with Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain each generating enthusiasm from that crowd at different points this year.
The Tea Party Express invested roughly $500,000 in a pro-Perry ad campaign earlier this month. But Sal Russo, the Republican operative behind Tea Party Express, said his donors could rally around Romney. “The tea party people are far more committed to winning than they are to ideological purity — contrary to perception that the tea party is unrealistic,” he said.
While longtime political observers said the field is all but settled, many of the self-identified leaders of the tea party movement are determined to influence the party’s choice.
FreedomWorks, the conservative group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), is leading an effort to get all the “anti-Romney candidates” to sign the Contract From America, a list of tea party priorities that nearly 70 sitting Members of Congress signed in the runup to the midterm elections.
The Washington-based organization, one of the most powerful claiming the tea party banner, has asked visitors to its website to rate budget-cutting proposals. So far, nearly all 40,000 respondents have demanded the repeal of President Barack Obama’s health care law, which was based on the health care plan Romney signed as governor. Romney has said he would repeal Obama’s signature measure, but his rivals attack him by pointing out that he has not always been consistent on the issue of a federal health care mandate.
“If you want to say you’re a tea party presidential candidate, well, where do you stand on these things that are important to tea partyers?” said Dean Clancy, the legislative counsel and vice president of health policy at FreedomWorks.
But the griping about Romney hasn’t translated into much action. If FreedomWorks were to use the $20 million it aims to raise through its new Super PAC on a major anti-Romney campaign, that could prove detrimental to the frontrunner’s campaign. Its nonprofit and advocacy arms raised $13.5 million combined in 2010, according to documents filed with the IRS. That pales in comparison to the $240 million Karl Rove’s American Crossroads has pledged to raise and spend against Obama and in favor of the ultimate GOP nominee.
Some tea party leaders are growing increasingly wary of Romney-bashing.
“I don’t know that there is some universal stop-Romney effort,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. “I just don’t see that and I know AFP would not be part of something like that.”
Mark Meckler, executive director of the Tea Party Patriots, refuses to weigh in on the race. That’s one reason longtime political observers believe that the new breed of conservatives will never coalesce around anyone in particular.
Romney’s campaign, stacked with veterans of his unsuccessful 2008 White House bid, is taking comfort in this model.
“Look, these races are very fluid, and one thing to keep in mind despite all of the movement, Gov. Romney’s maintained a very solid block of support,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams told Roll Call. He described Romney’s platform as one that “appeals to members of the tea party, Republican stalwarts and others who are disillusioned with Obama.”
Perry supporters note that Romney never seems to be able to get much over 30 percent.
The campaign doesn’t seem too concerned about the threat of candidates like Cain who brandish tea party credentials. The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO wrote an email to tea party supporters declaring himself “the clear frontrunner.” Bachmann on Friday trumpeted an endorsement from the editor of a prominent tea party blog.
The Romney campaign seems to have no plan to extend its reach into those circles. Romney was scheduled to file his official candidacy papers in New Hampshire today before heading to Washington for two fundraisers, one in the Virginia home of an ex-George W. Bush aide and a second with his top Congressional backers at the downtown headquarters of the American Trucking Associations.
Many key Washington insiders, mostly bundlers, have not committed to a candidate, perhaps because they are waiting to see which candidate proves able to unite tea party rhetoric and mainstream Republicans.
Sources on the ground in some of the early states said local conservative leaders, the people who rally voters to go to the polls, are also still not sure about what to do. Phillips said it’s a strange phenomenon: “I’ve never seen a nomination this fluid at the grass roots, people being genuinely undecided.”
People in Washington are baffled, too.
“Depending on the week, there is a favorite,” said a Washington insider supporting Perry. “The question is, can anyone pull those people together?”