COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina’s primary isn’t just the presumed last stand for the candidates who hope to stop Mitt Romney. It could also be the last stand for the Tea Party movement that was created to stop a candidate like Mitt Romney from ever getting the nomination in the first place.
A week out from votes being cast, the Tea Party shows no signs of coming together to stop Romney, who after all is the very architect of the type of health care law that helped bring tens of thousands out in protest in 2009.
Like they were in Iowa, Tea Partiers here are split among the several candidates vying for the title of anti-Romney and that means Romney has a path to victory right around them. And if the Tea Party fails to stop Romney, it will prove that the movement has failed to convert its electoral power in any real way beyond electing the 112th Congress (aka, The 9%).
A House Divided
At the back of Newt Gingrich’s first event following the New Hampshire primary in Rock Hill Wednesday, the Tea Party split that could be his undoing in South Carolina was on full display.
Gingrich has reached out to Palmetto State Tea Party groups, touting their support as a big part of the South Carolina firewall strategy he’s said has been at the center of his campaign plan all along.
But now that all eyes are finally on the state, few expect the Tea Party to win it for Gingrich — or anyone else, for that matter. Why? The insurgent movement that was the story of 2010 is split, deeply divided among Gingrich, Rick Santorum and to some extent even Romney. Not even Tea Partiers themselves expect their vote to push one candidate over the top.
In Rock Hill, near the North Carolina border, it was clear why. At the back of Gingrich’s big event stood Swain Sheppard and Paul Anderko, two leaders of GPS Conservatives For Action PAC, a Tea Party-leaning conservative activist group in Rock Hill. Both men were wearing Newt 2012 stickers, but Anderko is really on the fence (though leaning Romney). Sheppard likes Gingrich.
Though the pair agreed on politics enough to start an activist group together, their disagreements on the 2012 race are indicative of the wider conservative split in South Carolina.
On those nasty Bain Capital attacks, for example, Anderko said Gingrich should stop the rhetoric that Rush Limbaugh called anti-capitalist.
“I kind of agree with Rush,” Sheppard said. “As conservatives, our goal is to beat Obama…he is a socialist, period.”
Sheppard added that Perry’s “vulture capitalism shit” means “that’s it, he’s done.”
But Sheppard, who leans Gingrich, said the attacks are fair game.
“I think he should [be attacking on Bain],” Sheppard said. “If Romney gets the nomination, you don’t think Obama’s going to do the same stuff?…Romney is just now getting vetted. He needs to get vetted.”
Both men agreed that their fellow conservatives are not likely to line up behind one candidate, diluting the power of a movement many thought would hold sway in the primary race. But, like in Iowa, where the Tea Partiers never found The One, a conservative movement fixated on which anti-Romney to back rather than on Romney is helping pushing him toward the nomination.
That’s frustrating for Sheppard — who’s firmly in the anybody-but-Romney crowd — but he’s at a loss as to how to fix the problem.
“We’re so undecided…[the Tea Party] wants anybody but Romney at this point,” he said. “I don’t think they can beat Romney unless the coalesce together, Perry, Santorum and Newt.”
What are the chances of that?
“I don’t know, they’d have to go get in a huddle and flip a coin, I guess,” Sheppard said. He doesn’t see that happening. “Romney’s going to slide in there,” he said.
All Aboard The Electability Train
And when it comes down to that slide, as Sheppard and many establishment observers here think will happen, Sheppard said the Tea Party will coalesce behind the eventual GOP nominee. The best things the Bain attacks are doing at this point, Sheppard said, is testing the argument that Romney has the electability Republicans need.
That word — electability — appears to be swaying more than a few Tea Partiers and conservatives to Romney’s side. And that’s also frustrating to supporters of other candidates, who want the Tea Party to be in the anti-Romney camp with them.
At a Santorum event in Columbia Tuesday night, Heather Lackey, a conservative voter from the area stood up at the end of the event and asked Santorum to articulate why conservatives should support him over someone else. Santorum went into a long, exasperated answer: He’s got the consistent conservatism no one else in the race does. But he also suggested Romney is less electable than his rivals, pointing to Romney’s unsuccessful bid for the US Senate in 1994 and unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination in 2008. In between that was the one election Romney’s won, his single term as governor of Massachusetts.
“He’s the most electable?” a clearly annoyed Santorum said to a full house. “Says who? Where’s he ever proven that?”
Lackey likes Santorum, though she said Gingrich may articulate his policy points a little better. She’s not a member of the Tea Party, but stands with them on most things. Right now she’s frustrated with some of her fellow South Carolina conservatives she sees falling into the electability trap.
“Every time I hear that phrase, ‘electability’? It makes me want to vomit,” she said.
Resistance Is Futile
So: if the Tea Party is too fractured to stop Romney or too mesmerized by the electability argument to get in his way, what is it good for? Does it even have any influence? I asked the state Republican Party chair Chad Connelly to weigh in on the effects the movement will have on the primary in the end.
“I think they’re mimicking the party,” he said, adding that there are Tea Partiers in “every camp.”
“I don’t think it’s atypical at all,” Connelly said. The divide in the movement is “an indication that the Tea Parties are out there, they’re involved in the grassroots, they’re integrated into this whole process.”
Should the polls bear that out, with Romney taking the Carolina crown, it may turn out that the Tea Party was involved in a way no one expected: securing the frontrunner’s victory in what’s probably the last place one of his rivals can stop him.
One Last Chance
There’s a (slim) possibility the storyline could change for the Tea Party before all is said and done. Leaders of South Carolina Tea Party groups will gather this weekend for a convention in Myrtle Beach that could put an end to the some of the divides and unite the movement behind a single candidate.
And the Tea Party Express, whose endorsement helped to propel the likes of Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell into Republican nominations no one in the establishment wanted them to have, has promised to endorse before the primary date. That could shift things a bit, too.
But for now, the Tea Party in South Carolina — and therefore the movement nationally — appears to be facing a sort of existential crisis. Does it go down swinging, divided up among Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul? Or does it give in to Mittmentum and sign onto the electability train, despite what that may say about party principles.