This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise — Mitt Romney is rarely touted as a Tea Party candidate, after all — but several national Tea Party leaders have confirmed it: The former Massachusetts governor hasn’t made much of an effort to concretely interact with them:
“To my knowledge, Mitt Romney has never requested to participate in one of our tea party events or rallies,” said Jacqueline Bodnar, a spokeswoman at FreedomWorks, the Washington, D.C.-based organization led by former House leader Dick Armey. The group helped organize events like the 9/12 March on Washington in 2009 and annual “tax day” rallies. …
Another national figure in the movement, Mark Meckler, a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, also said Romney “certainly never reached out to our organization, not that I’m aware of.”
“I’m not aware of him speaking at any tea party events,” Meckler said. “I couldn’t say conclusively he hasn’t, but not that I’ve ever seen.”
Meckler, whose Tea Party Patriots is an umbrella organization for thousands of local groups, suggested Romney missed a great opportunity, especially during the health care battle, to come before tea partiers and argue against the bill.
“I think he was probably the perfect guy to make the argument,” Meckler said. Romney, he said, could have talked about how he knows from personal experience that the policies in the health care bill would be a mistake. Romney famously oversaw a state health care law in Massachusetts similar to the one pushed by Obama.
As a strategy, demonstrating only the very loosest of ties to the Tea Party made sense for Romney as long as his closest competitor was Michele Bachmann, whose appeal is nearly limited to Tea Partiers. In that scenario, by distancing himself, Romney could win the primary while still preserving the supposed independent appeal that increases his general electability.
But it makes less sense for him now that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is in the race, which might explain why Romney suddenly is keen to demonstrate the Tea Party would back his candidacy. Perry, as has been said, possesses the power to unite the various wings of the GOP and also polls well against Obama, so Romney must now concern himself as much with a primary win as with the general.
But truthfully, ignoring the Tea Party might not have made much sense from the beginning. Contrary to popular belief, independents very often vote for the most convicted candidates (independent support for Ron Paul provides a ready example), so Romney might have made even deeper inroads with independents by digging in his heels and proving his conservative credentials with a Tea-Party-backed-denouncement of Romneycare of the sort envisioned by Meckler. It certainly would have laid the specter of Obamneycare to rest in a way almost nothing else could have, given that the Tea Party’s credibility and influence evolved from and still largely rests on its trenchant and persistent opposition to PPACA.
But it might not be too late. At least one Tea Partier — Sal Russo, a strategist with Tea Party Express — suggests Romney hasn’t done anything to definitively turn the Tea Party off of him. “We have a good relationship not only with Romney, but with his campaign,” Russo said. Romney will appear in the CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Florida in September and he could make his affiliation clear then. Heaping criticism on his own health care policy at that time wouldn’t hurt, either.
Then again, maybe Romney just needs to stay the course. After all, would the Tea Party not back his candidacy if the only alternative to him was Obama? I think not. Nor do Tea Partiers seem like the kind to stay home. And the more the Tea Party learns about Perry, the more they might have reservations about him, as well. Plus, for all that Perry has the potential to unite, he also has the potential to lose support from both sides of the aisle by appealing too strongly to the other side. Romney might not want to risk losing the establishment niche even now just for the sake of appealing to the Tea Party. A lot of time ahead …
Update: No sooner do I write about this than Mitt Romney decides to headline a Tea Party event.