March 22, 2012 -- Mitt Romney, Tea Party candidate? Not so fast.
The Republican front-runner appeared to be on an easy path to the nomination the morning after his win in Illinois, when The Washington Times reported that an influential tea party group, Freedom Works, was ready to fall in line behind him, supposedly capping the monthslong struggle Romney has endured to sway conservative voters.
Unfortunately for Romney, the report — especially the headline — wasn't totally right, and the tea party is showing no sign of uniting behind him, or any candidate for that matter. Though the tea party remains a force in the GOP primary, it is a fractured group whose members have separate allegiances to all four candidates in their first presidential election as a movement.
"Finally, Romney Gets Tea Party Support" read the headline on the Times story, which quoted a FreedomWorks vice president as saying that "it is a statistical fact that the numbers favor Mitt Romney" and that "we are dedicated to defeating Obama and electing a conservative Senate that will help Romney repeal Obamacare and address the nation's economic and spending challenges."
FreedomWorks later clarified that the VP of the tea party organizing group, which boasts 1.6 million members, was merely talking about the state of the GOP race, and that Romney is the front-runner, fairly obviously.
"The headline was pretty misleading. We're not backing Romney for president at all," said Jackie Bodnar, a FreedomWorks spokeswoman.
FreedomWorks had protested Romney at a tea party rally in New Hampshire over what it said were inaccurate comments Romney had made about his policies being consistent with tea party sentiment. The protest earned FreedomWorks a reputation of opposing Romney's candidacy, though Bodnar said the group doesn't oppose him vehemently.
"I think we're all kind of united under getting a conservative Republican in the White House rather than President Obama," she said. "But it's not an 'anything but Romney' thing."
Romney has improved his standing among the tea party but still has trouble persuading strong conservatives that he's a better choice than his main rival, Rick Santorum, or even the third-place candidate, Newt Gingrich.
In Illinois on Tuesday night, for example, Romney won the most voters who described themselves as tea party supporters, but only among those who said they backed the movement "somewhat." Voters who said they strongly supported the tea party split their choice between Romney and Santorum.
"He's been courting the tea party folks, and some of us may have rolled our eyes recently," said Jim Martin, the chairman of the conservative seniors group 60 Plus Association, referring to Romney's speech at CPAC in which he said he was "severely conservative." "That sends a signal that he's been listening to them and taking the tea party vote very seriously."
Tea party leaders say that their movement is too fractured to even be close to coalescing behind a candidate, as Wednesday's Times story suggested.
"I would not say that the movement is behind Romney or anybody," said Amy Kremer, the chairwoman of the Tea Party Express. "You can see it's across the board right now. While he may have won last night, it was record low turnout. That tells you that the base is not energized. They're not motivated by this election, and I think we could see this primary process go on through June."
Tea partiers who don't support Romney, perhaps realizing that none of the other candidates are likely to get enough delegates to win the nomination, have begun talking more about the possibility of a "brokered" Republican convention in the summer, meaning that if none of the four candidates have enough delegates, the process essentially resets to a vote.
"The idea of an open or a brokered convention is becoming much more attractive to members of the tea party and the conservative movement just for the simple reason that what we get out of it may not be great, but it would be better than Romney," said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, who has endorsed Gingrich.
Kremer said she's been "hearing more and more chatter" in her email inbox and social media about tea partiers hoping for a brokered convention so that they'll have a voice in determining the nominee.
"Some people think it would be a disaster if we got there, and others think it's a very real possibility, or whatever, but the bottom line is, the people want to have a say in the matter," she said.