Gingrich, with ‘big tent’ philosophy, has backed centrist GOP candidates

Newt Gingrich has argued he’s conservatives’ choice to take on President Obama this fall, but in past high-profile Republican primaries, he’s backed the more centrist candidate.

Gingrich has long advocated for President Reagan’s “big tent” approach to governing.

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He backed state Rep. Dede Scozzafava (R) over Tea Party favorite Doug Hoffman in a hotly contested upstate New York special House election in 2009. And he backed a pro-abortion-rights primary foe over Joe Scarborough in Scarborough’s first run for Congress in 1994. The former Speaker also asked then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, an avowed centrist, to give the Republican response to President Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union address.

Gingrich’s support of a few centrists pales in comparison to Mitt Romney’s past vote in a Democratic presidential primary or Romney’s statement during his 1994 Senate race that he was “an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush.” 

But it contradicts one of the central arguments of Gingrich’s campaign: that as a true “Reagan conservative,” he would be a better general-election candidate than Romney, whom he has repeatedly called a “Massachusetts moderate.”



“Why would anyone in the establishment think that a Massachusetts moderate, which is a liberal by Republican standards — pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase, pro-gay rights — why would they think he’s going to be able to debate Barack Obama?” Gingrich said at a Jacksonville rally on Monday.


That statement seems to contradict repeated calls in the past for a “big tent” coalition that embraced differing viewpoints in order to govern. 

“It’s impossible to create a right-only majority in America,” Gingrich said at a forum of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership in 2004. “The key to electing Republicans to more offices and hav[ing] a bigger majority is to be more inclusive.”

“Gingrich could have one heck of a Lincoln-Douglas debate with himself when it comes to the posture of the Republican Party of the general election,” said professor Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, who has long followed Gingrich’s career. “There’s Newt the big-tent Republican, the believer in appealing to the center, and Newt the hardcore conservative who wants to appeal to the base and draw contrasts.”

Gingrich’s campaign strongly disagreed with that sentiment. 

“You have to build majorities as big as possible so you can govern as widely as possible,” said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond. “You’re cherry-picking a few races. He’s the Vince Lombardi of electing House majorities. There’s no one who’s done more and done better in electing a conservative majority than Newt Gingrich. You’re saying, ‘Oh, gee, he once helped a moderate get elected.’  He also helped thousands of Republicans get elected. And Mitt Romney as head of the [Republican Governors Association] lost governorships, and in Massachusetts he lost seats in [the] state House and state Senate.”

Gingrich’s “big tent” philosophy led to him endorsing Scozzafava, a pro-abortion-rights, pro-gay-marriage centrist, over the more conservative Hoffman in 2009. 

“The special election for the 23rd congressional district is an important test leading up to the midterm 2010 elections,” he said in a statement at the time. “Our best chance to put responsible and principled leaders in Washington starts here, with Dede Scozzafava.”

In defending his endorsement, Gingrich said it was more important to find candidates who could win than those with ideological purity. “If you seek to be a perfect minority, you’ll remain a minority,” he said.

Hoffman, at that point, was already backed by many prominent conservatives. He wound up narrowly losing to Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) after Scozzafava dropped out of the race and endorsed Owens.

Gingrich later said the Scozzafava endorsement had “probably been a mistake,” and Hoffman told The Hill that Gingrich called him to apologize after the election.

“Newt was given misinformation on this race in the 23rd district — he realized his mistake and called me to apologize after the election — but things had changed so quickly there he didn’t have an opportunity before the vote,” said Hoffman. “That’s water over the dam. If he had all the facts he certainly would have done things differently in that election.“

Gingrich has backed many conservatives along with these centrists, and as it was pointed out in a recent GOP debate, Romney voted in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary for Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.). Romney argued that he voted in that contest because the GOP race was settled and he was voting strategically. The former governor has admitted to becoming more conservative on issues ranging from abortion to climate change.

But Romney also backed Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the 2010 Senate primary against the more centrist Charlie Crist before Gingrich weighed in (and Crist switched to an Independent bid).

Scarborough, who helped lead the attempted coup against Gingrich in the mid-1990s, has attacked the former Speaker in recent days. One criticism: that Gingrich backed his primary opponent in 1994, a former Democrat who supported abortion rights. 

“Newt was working against me the whole time. He thought I was too conservative for my district. Nice call, Newt,” Scarborough said on MSNBC last week.

Scarborough has also criticized Gingrich for moving to the center and seeking to work with President Clinton instead of House conservatives on a 1996 budget deal. In a floor speech about the 1998 budget deal, Gingrich blasted conservative holdouts for not supporting the agreement.

“I would say for just a minute, if I might, to my friends who were asking for a ‘no’ vote, the ‘perfectionist caucus’ … what would you do under our Constitution? It is easy to get up and say ‘vote no,’ but then what would they do?”

Gingrich then said that Republicans and Clinton had “to work together on big issues. And if we do not work together on big issues, nothing gets done.”