As the GOP field settles into its final shape, Tea Party activists seem increasingly unsettled with the prospect of a centrist like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney winning the nomination.
Romney has never been popular with this group, and indeed, a Public Policy Polling survey last week found him placing just fourth among Tea Party supporters, polling an anemic 13 percent, while the leader, former businessman Herman Cain, pulled in 30 percent.
In short, the Tea Party movement is anything but unified, and the schism seems less about personality than ideology — a great conflict for the soul of the party. Worried Republicans are wondering whether this battle will doom their larger war and waste a strong chance to oust President Obama.
But if Romney ultimately wins the nomination, Tea Partiers might have no choice but to back him in a general-election match-up against Obama — an uncomfortable reality for many of the faithful.
Andrew Hemingway, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire and one of Romney’s most vocal opponents in the movement, says that in the primaries, it’s “anybody but Romney,” but in a general election, it’s “anybody but Obama,” implying that, yes, he’d support Romney, however halfheartedly.
His “anybody but Obama” attitude is music to Romney’s ears, and pollsters bring the power of empirics to the argument that the movement would unite behind Romney, despite its distaste for him.
When asked about Romney’s hypothetical general-election relationship with the Tea Party, Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen noted: “It was telling that in our national poll last week, Mitt Romney got the highest level of support among GOP voters against Barack Obama, even though we know that Tea Party voters are pretty tepid toward him.
“They’re not going to support him in the primary, but by November, they’ll be on board.”
Yet another pollster, Rasmussen Reports’s Scott Rasmussen, agreed, telling Fox News last week: “If Mitt Romney is the nominee or if Herman Cain is the nominee, I really believe that Barack Obama will provide the passion to get Republican voters to the polls.”
But not everyone in the Tea Party takes such an attitude toward the prospect of Romney winning the nomination.
Iowa Tea Party leader Ryan Rhodes is one influential figure who’s backing a Tea Party candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), and promises to withhold support from Romney in the general election.
“I, for one, won’t be working to get Romney elected. He can fend for himself,” Rhodes said.
If enough Tea Partiers adopt that attitude, Romney will have trouble securing not just the votes, but also the enthusiasm and dynamism that winning presidential campaigns need.
But there’s a third option in the debate over a nominee the Tea Party rejects, and that involves a third party — a heinous possibility for the GOP’s electoral hopes.
Hemingway warned that, although his attitude would be “anybody but Obama” in the general, there are plenty of Tea Partiers who are so angry with Romney that they could be driven into the arms of an independent presidential candidate.
Another clear warning comes from a more mainstream, conservative voice. Fox News contributor and Weekly Standard columnist Stephen Hayes said he expects most Tea Partiers will end up supporting whomever the GOP nominates, but cautioned that it’d be “a mistake” to take these voters for granted, saying they possess the “energy and enthusiasm” of the GOP.
Finally, there’s one revealing moment from last month’s GOP debate in front of a Tea Party audience that’s a powerful hint as to how the movement feels about an alternative to Obama — even a centrist one.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) whether he was more frightened by Perry’s or Romney’s vision.
Gingrich calmly answered: “I’m not particularly worried about Gov. Perry and Gov. Romney frightening the American people when President Obama scares them every single day.”
The Tea Party audience burst into an applause that was far more unified and passionate than the cheering or hissing they’d heaped on their favorite candidates up to that point.
In that moment, Obama had done what every candidate in the GOP field had failed to.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a staff member at The Hill. Find his column, “GOP Presidential Primary,” on thehill.com.