Christine O’Donnell will be in Iowa on Saturday in an attempt to unite the state’s deeply divided tea party movement behind a single candidate in advance of the caucus vote.
She will fail. And that’s a big deal — not just for O’Donnell, who’s made her name as a tea party leader, but also for the candidates jockeying for position with a month to go before the first votes are cast in the nomination cycle.
This is a story about O’Donnell, about Iowa and the tea party. For O’Donnell, the all-but-guaranteed failure will be another embarrassing moment in a string of them since she captured the upset win in the Delaware Senate GOP primary back in 2010. For Iowa, it’s another sign that the caucus race is almost completely unpredictable. For the tea party, it’s a signal that the movement’s strength in Iowa may not impact the final result (which is good news if you’re a guy with tea party problems like, say, Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.)
O’Donnell is set to speak at a private, no-press-allowed event Saturday afternoon in Des Moines aimed at bringing the tea party together.
Though her national significance is (at best) an open question, O’Donnell seems to think her getting behind a candidate will have an impact.
“Indirectly my endorsement represents all of us, so I want hear why they’re behind their certain candidate and weigh that with my thoughts about who I’m going to endorse,” she told the Des Moines Register when her visit was announced a couple weeks ago.
But the tea party in Iowa is probably not interested. Neither in O’Donnell, nor in coming together behind a single candidate.
“I don’t see that happening,” Charlie Gruschow, a tea party organizer in West Des Moines, told TPM. Like the evangelicals and other core Republican groups, the tea party is deeply split in Iowa among Ron Paul, Herman Cain (Gruschow worked for Cain in the past, but says he’s ready to back Gingrich if Cain drops out) and Michele Bachmann.
The Paul tea partiers especially aren’t going to budge. And Iowans tell TPM they’re a sizable chunk of the movement there.
“Here in Dubuque (county), they’re pretty strong for Ron Paul,” Matt Giese chair of the GOP in the far eastern Iowa county told TPM. “I don’t see them moving around.”
How hardcore is the support for Paul among the east Iowa tea partiers? “I hope that if their candidate doesn’t get the nod they’ll still support the GOP candidate [in the general],” he said.
Neither Gruschow nor Giese predicted Paul will win in Iowa, but they said his strong tea party support could put him in the top tier. But without unified tea party support, it’s hard to predict what the final result will be. One thing is clear, Iowans have told TPM: turnout will be high at January’s caucuses thanks to the tea party grassroots and nervousness about an Obama second term. So while the tea party will likely play a big role in getting voters to the polls, it’s probably not true that any one person can unite them.
Especially not O’Donnell, who Gruschow expects is coming to shill for Mitt Romney. O’Donnell told ABC News recently that she’s “70% behind Romney” and has given money to the man who’s made it clear he hopes to win Iowa.
That may happen, but Gruschow says it’s unlikely to be with tea party help.
“[If O’Donnell endorses Romney] that would turn off a lot of tea partiers and tea party activists,” Gruschow said. “In my opinion he’s not a candidate of the tea party.”
This isn’t the first time Gruschow has had less than positive things to say about O’Donnell. Back in September, O’Donnell was at the center of a kerfuffle about an Iowa event where she was scheduled to speak before Sarah Palin. Gruschow told the press he uninvited O’Donnell from the event after receiving “emails from a lot of tea party folks that were very disappointed that she would be speaking.”
Still, the real story here is the divided tea party and the attempts to unite it. O’Donnell surely isn’t the only Republican in Iowa who’d like to see the movement line up behind a single candidate, but Iowans say that’s probably not going to happen. That adds to the unpredictability of the current cycle in the Hawkeye State.