Armey tells House GOP: Win back the tea-partiers to win

Dick Armey left his former House GOP colleagues on Saturday with a sobering thought: They lost the tea-party activists in 2006, now go win 'em back.

The former House GOP leader told the lawmakers gathered on the third day of the issues retreat that if they worked hard, it would be possible to win back the “small-government, grass-roots conservatives.”

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Armey (R-Texas) explained in an interview that “in 1994 all we had to say to America was trust us, we aren’t them, and nobody ever remembered being disappointed in us in the majority. Now we have to say, ‘trust us, we’re not them and we’re not the guys that broke your hearts a few years ago.’ So they have a bigger task. But that’s not an insurmountable task.”

As president of the Freedom Forum, an organization that has coordinated many of the so-called Tea Party rallies and marches, Armey’s guidance was particularly important to Republicans.

Armey, who led House Republicans during the 1994 revolution, spent 90 minutes with GOP lawmakers on third and final day of the annual issues retreat. He had more time to take questions at the closed-door breakfast after the original final speaker, Virginia's Gov. Bob McDonnell, canceled due to the winter storm wreaking havoc on the Commonwealth Saturday morning.

On Friday, House GOP lawmakers sparred with President Barack Obama for 90 minutes on television and listened to former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) at a closed-door breakfast.

Gingrich, Armey and House GOP Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) crafted the Contract with America in 1994 that helped propel their party to majority status in the House for the first time in 40 years.

According to Illinois Republican Rep. John Shimkus, Armey’s message was one of tough love.

“He said, you walked away from your core principles and values, that’s why you have an outside conservative movement because they have no home,” Shimkus said after the discussion ended.

Armey explained to reporters that Republicans could do it, but it would be a “tough sell.”

“This is not an easy sell job. When we did the Contract, we had a marvelous phrase: ‘If we don’t do this, throw us out.’ The fact is, they did that,” Armey said.

And so Republicans need to work hard to regain the trust lost after only 12 years in control of Congress, when the lawmakers that were propelled into power in 1994 in part on ending Washington corruption were ousted for high-profile, pay-to-play scandals involving jailed uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), he said.

But given the volatile political climate in a precarious economic situation, campaign prognosticators foresee major GOP congressional wins in November, perhaps the 40 seats needed to retake control of the lower chamber.

With all GOP lawmakers' eyes focused on a potentially big victory this year, bolstered by the most recent unexpected GOP Senate win in Massachusetts, the members soaked up the advice and assessments offered by big-name guests including former Speaker Newt Gingrich and legendary Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz.

According to a source attending the breakfast, Armey echoed a point that Boehner emphasized repeatedly over the past three days: Republicans have to present a positive agenda, take time to meet with Tea Party activists, listen to them and “walk among them.”

Even Holtz made this point in his own folksy way at the banquet on Saturday night.

Hours after lawmakers held the Q&A with Obama that unfolded on national television, Holtz reminded GOP members that "even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat," according to a source in the room.

Ultimately, though, lawmakers came away from the weekend with Armey's cautionary warning in mind.

"This vision thing matters," an aide quoted Armey as telling Republicans at breakfast. "You can only win if you can convince Americans that you have a national policy vision [for] America and that your purpose in office is to serve that mission."

And GOP lawmakers feel more confident that they were able to make the point that they do have solutions to offer to the nation’s pressing problems.

“For us, just making sure the public understands that we have solutions and that they can go to gop.gov and they can see how our policies will hopefully provide for individual freedom, lower taxes and more power to the state” is important, Shimkus explained.