Newt Gingrich’s Battle with the GOP ‘Establishment’

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On Tuesday morning, former Vice President Dan Quayle endorsed Mitt Romney, as did California Congressmen Jerry Lewis, Ken Calvert and Brian Bilbray. On Monday morning, Tennessee Congressmen Jimmy Duncan, Diane Black and Phil Roe announced their support. In the past month Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte and John Thune of South Dakota have endorsed the former Massachusetts governor, as have 28 officials from Missouri, 15 from New Hampshire, 19 from Indiana, eight Nevada state senators, former Senator John Danforth, former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray and Representatives Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, Illinois’s Robert Dold and Pennsylvania’s Jim Gerlach. If there is a GOP establishment left after 2010’s Tea Party revolution, it is backing Mitt Romney.

So, given the meteoric rise of Newt Gingrich, is it any surprise that some of the former Speaker’s former colleagues this week have started to beat him back? On Fox News Sunday, Senator Tom Coburn, whose 2003 book Breach of Trust took Gingrich to task, panned the former Speaker. “I am not inclined to be a supporter of Newt Gingrich having served under him for four years and experienced personally his leadership,” the Oklahoma Republican said. And Politico has a roundup of mostly anonymous GOP criticisms of Gingrich and attack suggestions for Romney.

Surprisingly, a number of Democrats have come out swinging. (I say surprisingly because given Gingrich’s famously erratic manner, you’d think they might prefer to face him in the general election rather than Romney.) David Axelrod, President Obama’s top strategist, went after Gingrich hard yesterday on CNN, blaming Gingrich for the current Washington gridlock. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Monday reminded Talking Points Memo that she sat on the discipline committee that investigated Gingrich for more than a year and ultimately fined him $300,000 for rules violations. Pelosi said she’d release dirt on him “when the time is right.”

Gingrich fired back. “I want to thank Speaker [sic] Pelosi for what I regard as an early Christmas gift,” Gingrich said, adding, “That is a fundamental violation of the rules of the House.”

(PHOTOS: Gingrich’s Life in Pictures)

To some degree, inside-the-Beltway attacks could help the 32-year Washington veteran seem more like a political outsider. “Having the establishment against him helps improve his credibility with the conservatives in the Republican Party as shown in the latest poll of voters in Iowa,” says James Thurber, head of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. A Washington Post poll released Tuesday shows Gingrich winning 33% of Iowan voters followed by Romney tied with Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 18% each.

Indeed, the Republican base is so hungry for someone to fire them up – as clearly, Romney hasn’t – that they seem to be willing to overlook Gingrich’s three marriages, his record of moderate positions, his $1.6 million Fannie Mae paycheck and his political downfall as Speaker after overreaching during the Clinton era. “There is no effective GOP establishment left. There are folks who act like they are in charge but Republican voters don’t trust and aren’t listening to much of what the old establishment says. Dean Wormer can’t control campus anymore,” says GOP strategist Matt Dowd, citing the iconic movie Animal House. “The fraternity is in charge.”

Gingrich has 30 years of history with most Washington pols, much of it bad blood – remember the attempted coup? Still, few are likely to go so overtly  at Gingrich as Coburn. Instead, they’ll take the tried and true Washington path: anonymously leak every damaging and embarrassing story the Speaker has ever been even remotely involved in (see Politico story above). The question is this: Given his momentum with primary voters, will anything stick at this point? “A tough effort to push Romney through could backfire,” says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The ‘establishment’ — it has been co-opted by the insurgent forces it tried to co-opt in 2010 — may fall back on plan B: try to keep anyone from winning enough delegates to claim a majority and take it to the convention to get [former Florida Governor] Jeb Bush or [former Indiana Governor] Mitch Daniels.”