Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has effectively conquered what was perhaps the strongest force in American politics only two years ago: the Tea Party.
While he has not yet clinched the Republican nomination, Romney is far ahead of his rivals and is likely to collect another set of wins in Tuesday’s primaries in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Wisconsin. Republican party elders are pushing for his two main rivals, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, to leave the race so the GOP can organize around opposing President Obama.
Romney is winning despite having little credibility with many factions of the GOP, particularly the informal leaders of the insurgent movement that defined politics in 2009 and 2010 and became known as the Tea Party. Figures such as ex-Alaska governor Sarah Palin and talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who are popular with grassroots Republicans, have never truly embraced Romney.
Here’s how Romney is on the verge of the GOP nomination anyway:
1. He’s co-opted the Tea Party’s views on policy issues
Romney is frequently described as the Republicans’ moderate candidate. That says more about his past than the present. Aware of his weakness among conservatives, Romney has shifted far enough to the right that his position on most issues is indistinguishable from Gingrich or Santorum.
On immigration, for example, Romney not only opposes making it easier for the more than 10 million undocumented people living in the U.S. to become citizens, but has recently highlighted his opposition to more bi-partisan measures such as the Dream Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for the more limited group of the undocumented who are planning to attend college or serve in the Armed Forces.
He has proposed an economic plan that would drastically reduce taxes for the wealthy and corporations while cutting government spending, just as his party’s other candidates have. His record of pushing health care reform through in Massachusetts aside, Romney is emphatic about dumping President Obama’s entire health care law.
Romney has avoided the more fiery rhetoric of his rivals, such as Santorum and Gingrich, who have been much more aggressive in blasting President Obama.
But Romney’s conservatism in the nomination process has made it extremely difficult for his rivals to run to the right of him. Santorum may win the “very conservative” vote, but Romney is getting a significant bloc of conservatives in every primary.
The danger of this approach is, of course, in the general election. Romney has made it much easier for Obama to appeal to more centrist voters, particularly Latinos who may not be fully satisfied with the president’s tenure but favor policies such as the Dream Act.
2. He knocked out the Tea Party’s best candidate
Rick Perry had the money and the infrastructure to compete with Romney, unlike Santorum or Gingrich. But Romney attacked Perry on immigration and other issues sharply and quickly, weakening the man who would have given him the most formidable challenge. (To be sure, many of Perry’s gaffes were self-inflicted)
3. He’s successfully courted Fox News
In 2009 and 2010, Fox was in some ways more important than the official Republican Party in organizing Tea Party conservatives against President Obama.
The network could have played a similar role in lifting an insurgent against Romney if it had opted to do so. But Romney has smartly courted Fox, making near constant appearances on the network. One of its leading figures, former Bush adviser Karl Rove, has aided Romney heavily, not by endorsing him but by criticizing Perry, Herman Cain and other anti-establishment candidates who have sought to defeat Romney.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr