He’s a 67-year-old with jowls and has a résumé that includes three wives and nearly 20 years in one of the nation’s least favorite institutions. He hasn’t held elective office in more than a decade. He’s been around so long that he defined the face of the last Republican revolution (in 1994). To reach the White House, he must overcome a field of fresher faces with larger political bases—not to mention more than a century of history that says there’s no path down Pennsylvania Avenue from the House of Representatives to the White House.
But for all of his drawbacks, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who on Thursday became the first major Republican figure to formally declare his interest in the GOP presidential nomination, still possesses something his foes can’t match: a network of businesses, political action committees, and media contacts that provide him relationships across the conservative movement. He owns or chairs five notable groups, which alternatively showcase his fundraising muscle or connection to the party’s grassroots activists. His 2012 candidacy, which faces significant challenges, could turn on whether he can mobilize that network into a formidable asset.
Gingrich has always had an organizational bent. As an insurgent House backbencher after his election in 1978, he helped to found the Conservative Opportunity Society, which challenged the GOP’s more accommodationist congressional leadership. In the 1980s, he took control of GOPAC, a group that combed the grassroots for rising stars and became known for inundating candidates with audio and video tapes on strategy, tactics, policy, and language.
The crown jewel of Gingrich’s contemporary empire is American Solutions for Winning the Future, an operation whose 19 staff members are based in Washington and Atlanta. The nonprofit issue-advocacy group primarily pushes a conservative energy agenda—its most prominent slogan is “Drill Here, Drill Now”—and trains prospective GOP candidates nationwide. But the organization’s most impressive asset is its fundraising prowess: Partly because it can accept unlimited donations, the group attracted more than $50 million in 2009 and 2010 combined, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Gingrich also runs the for-profit Center for Health Transformation, which helps IBM and similar large companies with health care costs, and a political action committee called American Solutions. His two other groups manage his media appearances, books, and films.
All of these organizations have helped Gingrich deepen his connections and recruit allies in Republican circles nationwide. One is Linda Upmeyer, the majority leader in the Iowa House. In an interview with National Journal, Upmeyer cited her work with the Center for Health Transformation—as well as personal sit-downs with Gingrich—as the reasons she’s poised to endorse him should he declare his candidacy. “On one hand, I got to know Newt through those resources and the people he pulled together,” she said. “On the other hand, this is a person who comes to the state fair every year. This is a very human person that I’ve had to get to know on multiple levels.”
Allies cite Gingrich’s commitment to cultivating connections with grassroots conservatives as his biggest strength. “He’s not just someone they see on TV and have their picture taken with. He’s someone they look to [to] help shape and guide their efforts,” said Harry Levine, a Gingrich supporter in New Hampshire.
Gingrich has combined such ground-level outreach with a heavy media presence. His main media entity, Gingrich Communications, handled his contract with Fox News (which was suspended this week when he signaled his intention to run) and is in charge of his speaking engagements and books. With his wife, Callista, Gingrich has produced six documentaries under the Gingrich Productions banner. (Sample subjects: a biography of Ronald Reagan; a jeremiad against radical Islam.) None has reached the neighborhood multiplex, but several have achieved some visibility with conservatives.
Gingrich aides say that his empire has netted him an e-mail list of more than 2 million people and has helped burnish his executive credentials. But he still faces an uphill climb on that front in a GOP presidential field that could be heavy with current or former governors such as Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney. Moreover, converting Gingrich’s political and business empire into a campaign is not like flipping a light switch. When he declares his candidacy, Gingrich must legally separate himself from American Solutions for Winning the Future because of its tax-exempt status. There’s no guarantee that the millions of people involved with the group will support his new venture.
“That’s the question he’s going to have to resolve,” said Greg Mueller, a veteran conservative strategist. “Can he transition those people into foot soldiers for a candidacy? Can he get them to go to the polls for him?”
Tapping into that network is particularly important for a man who, despite his national platform for more than three decades, has never run anything larger than a congressional campaign in his safely Republican suburban Atlanta district. Gingrich has approached the line in previous presidential campaigns only to turn back. “I think the main difference that Gingrich will encounter is that his experience running for Congress in a safe district in northern Georgia a decade and a half ago won’t scale to the reality and difficulty of a modern national campaign,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP consultant.
House seats have been notoriously poor launch pads for presidential candidates. James Garfield in 1880 was the last member to win the presidency, and the most recent former House speaker to become president was James Polk in 1844. And unlike Gingrich, neither of those men had been formally out of politics for 13 years. His organizational network is a unique asset, but Gingrich will need more than a good e-mail list to vault over the hurdles confronting his candidacy.
This article appears in the March 5, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.