Throughout most of the campaign, presidential candidate Mitt Romney has struggled to win the support of the Tea Party Movement. That may be changing. Romney had a strong showing among Tea Party supporters in Illinois and Freedomworks announced that it will no longer oppose his nomination.
Freedomworks, an influential Tea Party organization headed by former House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey, announced Wednesday that it was no longer opposing Romney's nomination. Freedomworks had previously opposed Romney due to his support for a larger government role in health care when he was governor of Massachusetts, and his support for the Troubled Assets and Relief Program (TARP), which aided banks during the financial collapse in 2008.
Freedomworks' announcement is not the same as an endorsement, but an acceptance that Romney will most likely be the nominee and will need Tea Party support to defeat President Barack Obama in November. Some Tea Party leaders have also expressed concern that Romney's main rival, Rick Santorum, has spent too much time discussing social issues, rather than the main Tea Party concerns – limiting government power, lowering budget deficits and repealing the Affordable Care Act (2010), which they refer to as "Obamacare."
Romney also appears to be winning the support of rank-and-file Tea Partiers. In Tuesday's Illinois primary, Romney won a majority of Tea Party supporters.
Fifty-six percent of voters in the Illinois primary said they support the Tea Party and a plurality of them, 47 percent, voted for Romney. Even among those who said they "strongly support" the Tea Party, support was evenly split between Romney (42 percent) and Santorum (41 percent).
Romney still lacks strong support among evangelicals, another important part of the Republican base. Santorum gained the votes of 46 percent of evangelicals in Illinois, compared to 39 percent for Romney. Evangelicals comprised 42 percent of the electorate in Illinois. Thus far, Romney has won every state in which evangelicals made up less than half of the electorate and lost in every state where evangelicals were more than half of the electorate.
There is much overlap, however, between social conservatism, which many evangelicals identify with, and the Tea Party. According to Ralph Reed, chairman of Faith and Freedom Coalition, in a Tuesday interview on CNN, three out of four Tea Party supporters also identify themselves as a social conservative.
Even in early February, Armey was already saying that the Tea Party was expecting Romney to be the nominee and focused on winning House and Senate races. Tea Party initiatives would then come from House and Senate leadership, rather than the White House.
"We are left with a dilemma that we are not going to get a reliable, small government conservative, out of this nominating process. This is why we've focused our attention on the House and Senate. Our notion is, we will get the legislative initiative coming out of a conservative dominated House and Senate, build a legislative wall," Armey said Feb. 5 on CNN's "State of the Union."
When asked, in the same interview, if he would support Romney as the nominee, Armey replied, "We would rather have a Republican president that is not fully the guy that we adore wanting our affections than a Democrat president who despises us and covets the affections of our mortal enemies on public policy."