Can Newt Gingrich Pass Tea Party Muster?

Beth Reinhard

Newt Gingrich doesn’t seem like the tea party’s type. He’s the ultimate Washington insider, a career politician who spent two decades in that reviled institution known as the U.S. Congress. Especially when compared to stick it-to-the-man tea party heroes like Rep. Allen West of Florida and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Gingrich doesn’t seem to fit the part. He is the man.

But forget the aesthetics. Now that Gingrich is a verifiable front-running candidate for the Republican nomination, his record is facing renewed scrutiny by the most conservative and exuberant wing of the Republican party. While Gingrich has long advocated the tea party’s central tenet—cutting federal spending—his record falls short on several counts by the movement’s standards.

The latest blemish: consulting fees of at least $1.6 million that he collected from Freddie Mac over the past decade, according to a Bloomberg News report. Many tea party activists blame the government-sponsored mortgage backer for the housing crisis.

“Whenever the idea of ending Freddie Mac comes up with our group, it gets a standing ovation," said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, a prominent tea party umbrella group. “Gingrich is not going to be able to nuance this away."

Gingrich responded to the Bloomberg story with a statement noting that he never lobbied for Freddie Mac or opposed legislative reforms. “Newt Gingrich welcomes scrutiny of his record in public office and as a small businessman," the statement said.

But the Freddie Mac money is only the most recent of what Brandon described as a “litany" of concerns the tea party movement has with the former House speaker. Gingrich backed the creation of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit under President Bush, which the tea party sees as an expansion of an unaffordable entitlement program. He starred in a television ad with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling on Congress to combat climate change. He supported the Wall Street bailout known as TARP. And he backed tea party archrivals such as Dede Scozzafava in the 2009 special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District and former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010.

For fiscal conservatives, Freddie Mac is not his only problematic client in the Gingrich stable. The ex-congressman has built up a massive business and media empire in recent years. In April, Gingrich defended collecting more than $300,000 in consulting fees from Growth Energy, a major lobbyist for the ethanol industry. “I am not a lobbyist for ethanol,” Gingrich had declared months earlier in a dispute with the editors of The Wall Street Journal over his support for government subsidies for alternative fuel.

“Now that he’s the front-runner, he has to go through all this stuff again," said Iowa tea party leader Ryan Rhodes. “How he deals with the situation will determine whether he stays on top.… People are looking for someone who can stand up to scrutiny and have the same answer one day as the next."

Allen Olsen, a tea party leader in South Carolina who backs Gingrich, said he can’t be blamed for Freddie Mac’s mistakes. The Contract With America, Gingrich’s manifesto during the 1994 campaign in which the GOP took control of the House, included “a lot of things near and dear to the tea party movement," Olsen said. “He has a track record of balancing the budget."

Sal Russo, a California-based Republican strategist active in the tea party movement, also struck a forgiving tone. At a time when other tea party-friendly candidates like Herman Cain and Rick Perry have struggled to prove they have the gravitas and grasp of public policy demanded of the national stage, Gingrich’s intellectual heft stands out.

“All of the candidates have done and said things in the past that don’t warm our hearts," Russo said. “The country is in dire financial straits, and we’re looking at their prescription for the future."

In what will be his tea party debut as a top-tier candidate, Gingrich is scheduled to participate in a town hall hosted by the First Coast Tea Party in Jacksonville on Thursday.