Presidential primary polls will not open for another year, but archconservatives have begun debating how to reverse the GOP’s losing streak in national elections.
Retaking the Oval Office, according to many of the activists attending the annual Tea Party Coalition Convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, depends on choosing a nominee from within the conservative movement, rather than a more moderate favorite.
“There’s just so much excitement here, such hope that we can go in a different direction,” said Gerri McDaniel, a Myrtle Beach tea party leader who helped organize the three-day convention that opened on Jan. 17.
About 1,500 attendees from 28 states gathered to hear from several potential White House hopefuls who hope to tap that energy, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Donald Trump.
Organizers said they also invited Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. They all declined, citing scheduling conflicts.
The venue is particularly important given that South Carolina hosts the South’s first primary, set for February 2016, shortly after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Newt Gingrich, who won South Carolina’s 2012 Republican primary, has said publicly that he will not run again.
Meanwhile, the party establishment finds itself embroiled in an unusual scramble among New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and failed 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who recently started telling his past backers and staff members that he’s considering a third run for president.
In 2008 and 2012, McCain and Romney, respectively, consolidated the establishment relatively early in the primary calendar, positioning themselves to withstand spirited, but longshot challenges from multiple candidates more to their right. Certainly, the 2016 campaign again promises a plethora of conservative candidates, but figures on the right express optimism that one of their standard-bearers has a shot if the traditional GOP power structure remains divided.
Nearly to a person at the South Carolina tea party gathering, activists express displeasure at the current establishment trio. Among their concerns: Bush’s support for Common Core and an overhaul of immigration laws, Romney’s long struggle to connect with both the GOP base and middle class voters of all stripes, and Christie’s governing record in a Democratic-leaning state that has legalized same-sex marriage and expanded Medicaid.
“We dislike them all tremendously,” said Jack Gillies of the Fort Lauderdale tea party in south Florida.
On Jan. 17, speakers at the conference mostly avoided calling out specific figures other than President Barack Obama and some Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, but they offered a fiery defense of policies that have come to define the tea party and the right-wing grassroots.
Robert Rector of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation drew a standing ovation when he said, “If you want to control the cost of welfare, do not grant amnesty.”
Retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, a Louisiana Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate last year, also blasted the administration’s immigration stance.
“We will not allow illegal aliens who break our laws to be rewarded with our jobs and government handouts,” Maness boomed. But “far worse” than Obama’s job performance, Maness said, “are those go-along to get-along politicians who insist on masquerading as Republicans.”