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Since his disappointing finish in Iowa last week, Newt Gingrich has been on a kamikaze mission to destroy Mitt Romney, and most political watchers are pretty confident that he is going to destroy himself in the process.What most people don’t know (or at least fail to mention) is that Gingrich has a secret weapon — a crack team of young Tea Party operatives who are determined to carry Gingrich through the primaries, and ready to take on the Republican Establishment, no matter the cost.
This fresh-faced group of conservatives — which includes Gingrich’s New Hampshire and South Carolina campaign managers, his national coalitions director, some fundraising guys, and several members of his communications team — have limited experience in politics, let alone on a presidential campaign. Instead, their political involvement has primarily been in grassroots conservative activism, as part of a growing network of strategists and consultants that has evolved outside of traditional Republican politics in what amounts to the professionalization of the Tea Party.
Despite their relative inexperience, these young operatives have shown an impressive ability to activate the Republican base, using aggressive social media and online outreach to mobilize conservative grassroots networks. For the past two months, they have been channeling that energy into support for Gingrich’s campaign, quietly turning the former House Speaker into the de facto Tea Party candidate.
“If you look at Newt’s support staff, they don’t come from normal places,” Gingrich’s communications director R.C. Hammond told Business Insider. “This is a young crew of insurgent Republicans — they understand people inside and out, they understand how to keep people active, that we have to be inclusive.”
On its face, Gingrich’s ties to the Tea Party may seem unlikely — a weird marriage between young conservative idealists and a candidate who often seems like a relic of the last century. But Andrew Hemingway, Gingrich’s political director here in New Hampshire, told Business Insider he sees it as a natural fit.
Gingrich, Hemingway said, is the anti-Establishment candidate. That may seem like a strange claim, given that the former House Speaker basically spent his entire career in Washington, but it’s clear that, to Hemingway and Gingrich’s other young operatives, Establishment is, in many ways, synonymous with elite — and to that end, Mitt Romney is almost as bad as Barack Obama.
“The problem with the Establishment is that we have been following the Establishment’s model for however many years, and it’s not working,” Hemingway said. “The Establishment is trying to save the Establishment — that’s what Establishment does.”
In an interview with Business Insider on Saturday, Hemingway explained how, over the past two months, he used aggressive social media strategies and grassroots organising to build an unconventional ground organisation from scratch — and basically broke every rule in New Hampshire retail politics in the process.
“I recognised that from Day One, we would be judged side-by-side with the other candidates who had been here and who had had campaigns for a year or longer,” Hemingway said, noting that he eschewed the top-down organisation typical of Granite State primary campaigns. “I knew we needed to hire people quickly, but who were confident and entrepreneurial. I needed to be able to say, ‘Here are your volunteers, but I can’t tell you what to do with them because there is no time.'”
To be sure, a “new style of campaigning” is usually code for no money, and the Gingrich camp has definitely had its share of cash problems. But that doesn’t change the fact that Hemingway and the other Tea Party 20-somethings helped orchestrate a pretty incredible comeback this fall, or devalue their gall to question conventional campaign wisdom and shake up the way that presidential campaigns are run.
With Gingrich dropping in New Hampshire polls, Romney looks like he might have things locked up here on Tuesday. Which leaves us with the question: What will his guys do if Mitt Romney wins the nomination? It is clear that none of them are inclined to suck it up for the good of the party, but Republicans would be remiss if they continue to ignore or marginalize young political thinkers who are clearly in touch with the party base.
But at the end of the day, Gingrich’s Tea Party insurgents may be ahead of their time. This anecdote pretty much sums it up:
Sitting in his office at Gingrich’s Manchester headquarters yesterday, Hemingway asked me if I knew Mark Halperin (Time magazine’s senior political analyst).
“Not personally,” I replied. “But yeah, I know who he is.”
“Well, I didn’t,” he said. “He walked in here like 8 days after we opened, in October, and was like ‘I’m Mark Halperin,’ and I was like, ‘Are you from Manchester?'”
Halperin — who had come in on a Romney tip that Gingrich’s office didn’t have landlines — was apparently unimpressed. He ended up writing the phone story, which quickly turned into a narrative about Gingrich’s shoddy campaign organisation.
“I didn’t even get it,” Hemingway said. “I mean, we all have phones — is has a number, it has a voicemail, what do we need landlines for?”
Eventually, the office did get a few landline phones — “for radio interviews,” Hemingway explained — and he and Halperin now joke about it. But the incident still seems to illustrate some slow shift, or disconnect, in the political establishment.
I ask Hemingway if he thinks maybe the incident says more about Halperin’s relevance than it does about his own.
He shrugs. “Guess we’ll see.”
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