Can Huckabee tame the Tea Party?

Can Huckabee tame the Tea Party?
© Greg Nash

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) has the chance to be a top-tier candidate in 2016 — but he’ll have to tame the Tea Party to do it. 

Even before he announced over the weekend that he was resigning from Fox News to explore a presidential run, Huckabee was already leading in some early Iowa polls.  

The smooth-talking former Baptist preacher is a natural fit with conservatives in the Hawkeye State, winning the caucuses there in 2008. Strategists also say he shouldn’t be underestimated in heavily evangelical South Carolina.  

But even though Huckabee could still appeal to the religious right, the smaller government and anti-tax chorus has only grown louder in the years since he last ran for president.  

That group was skeptical of the former governor’s fiscal record in Arkansas and past support of Common Core education standards before, and he can expect even more pointed questions as he traverses the early primary states. 

“I would never underestimate Governor Huckabee. He’s proven to be a very savvy campaigner and effective communicator, and the last six years or so on Fox News has only elevated his stature,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an Iowa conservative leader who backed Huckabee in 2008.  

“But we’ll definitely be asking questions on limited government, parental rights and local controls as they relate to education. And quite frankly, 2016 is different than 2008 and 2012,” Vander Plaats added.  

Huckabee was the surprise of the 2008 GOP race, winning Iowa before falling just short in the Palmetto State, and then running out of money and steam. Since then, his long tenure at Fox has only improved his stature with many conservatives. 

But with that increased exposure, Huckabee will face both heightened expectations and new scrutiny as he looks to adapt to a party base that is much more focused on taxes and spending than it was in his 2008 run.  

He’ll also need to assure Tea Party activists that his turn against Common Core, toxic with parts of the GOP base, is genuine.   

“Generally people are more focused on fiscal issues than they were,” said South Carolina GOP strategist Joel Sawyer. “It would be a mistake to write off anyone who has national name recognition who has done well in this state before ... but the electorate in South Carolina has shifted away from looking for who is going to be the most socially conservative.” 

Huckabee is already getting a taste of the likely attacks to come. 

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Authorizing military force is necessary, but insufficient GOP feuds with outside group over analysis of tax framework MORE’s (R-Ky.) political action committee jumped on his Fox announcement with Google ads linked to Huckabee searches. 

“Less Taxes Not More,” read one. “We need leaders who will cut taxes, not raise them.” 

Paul was joined by the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, a longtime Huckabee antagonist. 

“As Mike Huckabee weighs the pros and cons of a second presidential candidacy, he should know that the Club for Growth PAC will make sure that Republican primary voters thoroughly examine his exceptionally poor record of raising taxes and spending as governor,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement blasted to reporters Monday morning.  

McIntosh continued on to warn that Huckabee’s “big government record would stand out from the crowd, and not in a good way,” before attacking him for raising some taxes and growing government spending while he was governor. 

Huckabee’s team declined to respond to the attacks, instead underscoring just how serious he is about a bid.  

“From our standpoint, what’s going on right now is so many people have said for such a long time he was not going to leave his very nice job, one that he really enjoys doing and the money of hosting a Fox show to consider a run for president, and he’s proven them wrong,” said Huckabee spokeswoman Alice Stewart. “Now is the difficult process of gauging support, whether it’s volunteers and grassroots or financial support. We’re just starting that.” 

The former governor is scheduled to be in Iowa later this month for a major gathering of activists hosted by Citizens United and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).  

He’s also set to go on a national tour for his new book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, that will take him through Iowa, South Carolina and other early-primary states, starting Jan. 20. 

He successfully parried the Club’s attacks eight years ago, though voters might put more weight on fiscal issues now.  

But prominent Iowa Republicans warn that his past Common Core support might be a bigger problem. Huckabee has since disavowed the program, saying it has morphed into something other than what it was when he backed it. Still, activists are likely to push him hard on the issue. 

“That’s going to be the biggest issue with the base, they’re going to need to be sure he’s totally against Common Core and totally for parental rights and local control,” warned Vander Plaats. 

“The Common Core stuff will be extremely relevant,” said Steve Deace, the host of a popular Des Moines-based conservative talk show. “He’s probably going to be as sick of answering Common Core questions as ‘90s one-hit wonders are sick of playing ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ And how he answers those questions will go a long way in determining how well he does as a candidate.”