Despite warning signs, Romney declines to reach out to major tea party groups

Will Rahn Senior Editor
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Two of America’s most active national tea party organizations say former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has made no effort to win them over, despite his apparent need to attract more grassroots support.

“As far as I am aware, we’ve had no contact with Romney’s campaign, nor have any of his representatives reached out,” Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, told The Daily Caller.

Meckler, however, acknowledged: “We haven’t had a lot of contact with the candidates in general, though [congresswoman Michele] Bachmann, [businessman Herman] Cain, and [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich have all spent a lot of time attending and speaking at a variety of local tea party events.”

Matt Kibbe, president of the influential tea party group FreedomWorks, says he is not aware of any attempts by the Romney campaign to contact his organization. “I think their strategy is explicitly to sort of wait out the primary in the hopes that they’re the last man standing,” Kibbe told TheDC. “And he’s doing it without repudiating Romneycare, and he’s doing it without really changing who he is … fundamentally he’s the establishment candidate, so I don’t think he thinks he needs the grassroots base to win.”

Polls indicate that support for Romney among self-described tea partiers and “very conservative” voters remains anemic. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that after nearly two years campaigning, Romney has the support of only 18 percent of very conservative voters and 21 percent of tea partiers. A full 40 percent of Republican voters say they would have reservations about voting for Romney, should he become the GOP’s presidential nominee.

The Daily Caller revealed in August that unlike most of his opponents, Romney had not participated in a major national tea party rally. Days later, the former Massachusetts governor was signed up to speak at an event in New Hampshire hosted by Tea Party Express.

A strategist with that group, Sal Russo, said in an interview with TheDC that Romney has made an effort to get to know the Tea Party Express.

“We have a good relationship with him,” Russo said. “We have regular communications with them.” (RELATED: Tea party lays out top 10 federal government cuts)

He added: “We did have a meeting with Romney … we had dinner with many of his key staff people.”

In August, Tim Phillips, who leads the free market advocacy group Americans for Prosperity — which is closely associated with the tea party movement — told TheDC that Romney had participated in functions his group organized. But these events were not necessarily tea party events.

“I know he’s participated in a fair number of AFP events over the years, going back to when he ran the first time in 2008,” Phillips said.

Phillips and other representatives of AFP declined to comment for this story.

While stumping in New Hampshire in June, Romney told TheDC that, “I think I line up pretty well with the tea party. They want to see smaller government. So do I.” But many tea partiers can’t get past the fact that he pushed a health care bill as governor of Massachusetts with an individual mandate requiring residents to be insured.

Resistance from grassroots conservatives helps explain why Romney has been unable to secure a steady lead for the nomination despite the aura of inevitability that has begun to settle over his candidacy. Romney’s closest challenger, former pizza mogul Herman Cain, has tied or even bested the former governor in a series of recent polls, largely due to his popularity among very conservative voters.

“I think what he needs to do is to offer some bold ideas that would attract tea party activists to his platform, and he hasn’t really done that yet,” Kibbe added. “The only thing that we see that’s attractive about his platform is that he is willing to repeal Obamacare, but every candidate on the stage is in the same place, some more credibly taking that position.”

Kibbe says offering a bold tax reform plan or a similarly big-picture idea would rally more tea partiers to Romney’s banner than reaching out to any particular group.

“I think the key to winning the hearts and the energy of tea party activists — it’s not a personality thing, it’s not reaching out, it’s whether or not Mitt Romney credibly stands on some issues that can turn around our economy and slow the growth of government,” he said. “He certainly doesn’t need to call us, but we would love to see some policy changes in his platform, something that would actually make a difference should he be elected.”

When asked if he would vote for Romney should he become the nominee, Kibbe demurred.

“Ask me in April,” he said.

There is a precedent for Republicans with tea party problems going out of their way to cozy up to influential grassroots groups: Both Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch made news in March by showing up to a FreedomWorks get-together to schmooze with conservative activists.

Some political consultants, however, are skeptical that reaching out to tea party groups could make a big difference, a sentiment that Romney’s campaign appears to share.

Veteran political strategist Mike Murphy, who is unaffiliated with any candidate this year but consulted with Romney during his time as governor, told TheDC that Romney’s message is what really counts. Murphy believes the tea party’s bottom-up structure and lack of formal organization allows Romney to sidestep groups like FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots.

“I don’t think either of those groups can deliver a pizza, let alone a vote,” he said.

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