The hottest argument in Republican circles these days isn’t about immigration, taxes or even health care policy. It’s about New Gingrich and whether nominating him as the party standard-bearer would be disastrous or providential.
The pundits and professional consultants have weighed in on the question in a largely negative manner but many of the Republican candidates seeking election to Congress next fall don’t appear to share the concerns the GOP establishment seems to have about the impact Gingrich would have on downballot races as their presidential nominee.
A dozen of the GOP’s top recruits to run for Congress, part of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program for 35 promising candidates, said in interviews with NBCPolitics.com over the last week that they’re not worried about running with the former House speaker at the top at the ticket. Some are downright excited about the prospect.
"I’ve been telling people all along that Newt is the real thing, and he’s substantially different than when he was Speaker of the House," said Dave Garrison, the Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett in Texas.
“I think for my race, my views are more in line with Newt Gingrich, and if the base rallies behind a Newt Gingrich-like candidate, it will benefit me,” said another Republican running for Congress in the southwestern U.S., who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly about the race. “I think Newt’s a more exciting candidate; he’s going to bring more attention to the conservative cause.”
Some Republicans worry that, at best, Gingrich wouldn’t be as competitive of a candidate against President Barack Obama, and would diminish Republican prospects downballot. At worst, the GOP establishment fears an implosion by Gingrich, whose career has been marked by lapses in discipline, that has catastrophic effects on the Republican brand in 2012.
Conventional wisdom in Washington, reinforced by recent polling, suggests that Gingrich would perform worse as a general election candidate than former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. But the crop of Republican candidates seeking election to Congress doesn’t seem to mind.
Data from the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reinforces that viewpoint. Gingrich performs worse against Obama than Romney in key demographic groups like women aged 18-49 and independents. Romney also fares better versus Obama in the Northeast and West, according to the data. At the same time, the poll showed that conservative enthusiasm is behind Gingrich, signaling that he could carry GOP enthusiasm with his candidacy.
In the interviews, the Candidates’ opinions toward Gingrich boiled down to the belief that, while he might not be the perfect nominee, he’s more likely to aggressively contest the election and, by that strategy, spark Republican enthusiasm, particularly among conservatives. The candidates brushed off Gingrich’s baggage, both personal and professional.
Most candidates refused to pick explicitly between Gingrich and Romney when assessing which of the two might help their own prospects. Two of the GOP’s most astute political minds – Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole and former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, each of whom spent time running the NRCC – said the Gingrich-or-Romney effect would vary most strongly across regions of the country.
“What we’ve seen in polling to date is that Gingrich is a weaker candidate at the top of the ticket, especially in the Northeast and Midwest,” Davis explained. “Romney is more acceptable to swing voters in that area.”
But even an admitted Romney admirer like Mike Clark, a Republican candidate in Connecticut, expressed comfort about having Gingrich at the top of the ticket. “He certainly stimulates a lot of discussion. One of my concerns is that a lot of voters are apathetic, and I think he erodes that,” he said. “I would not view a Gingrich campaign as a death knell for the Republican Party in the Northeast.”
The candidates see the presidential contest affecting their own races in several key ways. Chiefly, they say that a good candidate could help drive turnout, especially in swing districts where every vote matters at the margin. They also see the eventual presidential candidate as helping to set the pace and tone of their debates. That might mean that when Gingrich, who’s given to speak extemporaneously, says something controversial on the national stage, it will trickle down to other GOP candidates.
“If he’s the candidate and he takes a position on something with illegal immigration or the economy or whatever, I think it’s a totally appropriate question to ask a candidate,” said California Republican candidate Gary DeLong.
“There isn’t any question about it that my opponent, whoever he or she may be, will try to find whatever the most extreme position whatever presidential candidate might have, and push me right up against it,” said John Koster, a GOP candidate in Washington state. “And they can probably expect Republican candidates will take Democrats and shove them right up against President Obama.”
It’s fear of exactly that scenario that’s driven concerns about Gingrich among Republicans in Washington, some of whom view the prospects of a Gingrich implosion as a matter of when, not if. And at that point, a serious stumble could harm the GOP brand. Their unease about Gingrich is well-documented; a number of them expressed their concerns this week to Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper.
“Romney definitely gives Republicans their best chance downballot,” said a veteran GOP strategist familiar with congressional contests who requested anonymity to provide candid analysis. “Whether the Republican nom wins or loses, the most important thing for congressional candidates is a close race.”
Cole, the Oklahoma congressman who headed House Republicans’ campaign efforts in 2006-08, was more forgiving. “The reality is that presidential campaigns are long and complex,” he said. “While that can really magnify your flaws, it also means that any single flaw is seldom debilitating.”
A few of the Republican candidates contacted by NBCPolitics.com citied the Massachusetts health reform Romney spearheaded as governor as a reason to give them pause about him.
“In my district, what I hear, the epitome of right track/wrong track is ObamaCare,” said Ed Martin, one of two Republican candidates in Missouri’s Second district. “Here’s the problem with Romney: RomneyCare dilutes that argument.”
Most of the candidates said they’re planning their campaigns independently of the eventual nominee. (“Campaigns can really rise and fall in a matter of minutes. I’m not going to irrevocably tie myself to any one candidate,” said Ricky Gill, a GOP candidate in California).
And still others believe that Republicans’ enthusiasm in beating Obama in 2012 is enough to carry the day, regardless of the eventual nominee. (“To the extent that the election is a referendum on the Obama administration, whoever the nominee is, they’re going to do just fine,” said Andy Barr, a repeat Republican candidate in Kentucky.
Even Gingrich supporters acknowledge the candidate’s flaws. Garrisson said the former Speaker’s talk about “amnesty” – referencing his statements in favor of allowing a citizenship process for illegal immigrants who establish roots in the U.S. – doesn’t help him. Garrisson also said Gingrich’s advocacy work on behalf of troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which earned his firm a reported $1.6 million, “cumbersome.”
The former speaker’s personal baggage – three marriages, the current one being the byproduct of an affair – are well-documented, too. None of the candidates mentioned that as a concern, though. And Gingrich has sought to defuse the issue by publicly acknowledging that he’s made mistakes, and saying that he’s sought forgiveness for his actions.
And just as primary voters appear to be looking for someone who might rock the boat, so are Republican candidates.
“I think what we want at the top of the ticket is someone who’s smart and articulate and is willing to challenge the status quo,” said Mark Meadows, a House candidate in North Carolina.