But who’s the tea party’s candidate?

March 15th, 2011

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This piece was originally published in Politico.

You can’t a win horse race without a horse. That looks like a problem for tea party Republicans.

The tea party is the most dynamic movement the Republican Party has seen since Ronald Reagan. This movement has always taken pride in the fact that it has no acknowledged national leader or spokesperson.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may be the closest thing the tea party has to a potential presidential candidate, but the odds are growing that she won’t run. Two thirds of registered voters said they did not consider Palin qualified to be president, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken just before the 2010 midterm. Even Republicans were split. Palin may want to take her time making up her mind. The minute she announces she’s not running, a lot of the attention and money will dry up.

If Palin doesn’t run, another tea party favorite, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), has been signaling an interest. She has a following on the right because of her colorful, sometimes inflammatory statements: “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax,” Bachmann said, “because we need to fight back.” A fringe candidate, perhaps, but not likely to be a serious contender.

The first Republican debate is less than eight weeks away — May 2 at the Reagan Library in California (co-sponsored by NBC and POLITICO). So far, no Republican candidate has declared.

Five contenders appear to be gearing up to run: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Four others, in addition to Palin and Bachmann, are reported to be considering a run: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, now Obama’s ambassador to China.

Republicans tend to divide by class — just like Democrats. Democratic primaries usually end up with a progressive, who appeals to upper-middle-class liberals, facing off against a populist with working-class support. Barack Obama won the progressive vote in the 2008 Democratic primaries, while Hillary Clinton took the populists.

The class split among Republicans is between country-club conservatives and “values voters,” who have ties to the religious right. Reagan drew strong support from both wings of the party. So did George W. Bush. Both got elected to two terms.

Where does the tea party fit in? Demographically, tea party supporters look like values voters — that is, right-wing populists. Palin would probably have trouble getting into a country club in Greenwich, Conn.

In fact, there’s a lot of overlap between the tea party and the religious right. A survey last year by the Public Religion Research Institute found that nearly half (47 percent) of tea party supporters also consider themselves part of the Christian conservative movement. But the tea party gives higher priority to fiscal issues than to social issues.

The tea party is really a populist expression of country-club conservatism. They share the same fixation on spending, taxes and deficits. But the tea party has a moralistic approach to politics that refuses to play by the rules of the political establishment. No deal-making, no compromises.

The Iowa Republican caucuses are dominated by the religious right. Huckabee won in 2008. If he runs, Huckabee could again be the champion of the values voters, though he is likely to face competition for that title from Pawlenty and Santorum.

At a presidential forum earlier this month, Santorum emphasized his ties to the religious right, telling the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, “This is a group that I’ve been attached to at the hip for long, long years,” Pawlenty said, “If we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually.”

The religious right is far less influential in New Hampshire, which tends to favor country-club conservatives. Sen. John McCain won New Hampshire twice. The GOP establishment favorites for 2012 are Romney, Gingrich, Barbour and Daniels. At the moment, Romney, from neighboring Massachusetts, has a strong lead in New Hampshire.

Republicans have usually nominated a candidate who has run before (Richard M. Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, McCain — plus Gerald Ford, because he was the incumbent president, and George W. Bush, because his name was Bush). Romney has strong support among Northeastern Republicans because of his ties to Massachusetts; in the Midwest because of his family roots in Michigan, and in the West, where Mormons are an important GOP constituency.

Romney’s big test will be the South. The South is the heartland of the modern Republican Party. It has a lot of evangelical Christians, who may not feel comfortable voting for a Mormon. Or a wavering conservative who once supported gay rights and abortion rights — and signed the Massachusetts health care plan. If Romney wins South Carolina —as McCain did in 2008 — the Republican race is over.

Romney’s key claim is that he is a former business executive who knows how to create jobs. The mergers his firm helped engineer, however, also threw some people out of work. Those people are likely to be heard from in anti-Romney campaign ads.

The big question is whether the tea party will embrace Romney because of his fiscal conservatism. Or try to stop him because he is a deal-maker and an establishment politician. Tea party activists may not have a horse in the race, but they could be the fixers who determine the outcome.

What’s odd is that Republicans have a far more attractive field of potential vice presidential candidates than presidential. How about a Latino Republican like Sen. Marco Rubio (of Florida!). A populist conservative like Gov. Chris Christie (of New Jersey!). A woman like Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina (an Indian-American!). There are also the fiscally conservative “young guns” of the new House Republican majority: Paul Ryan (of Wisconsin!), House Whip Kevin McCarthy (of California!) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Jewish — and from Virginia!).

The tea party would be thrilled to have any of them on the ticket. Which is probably what they will have to settle for.

Bill Schneider is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.