Newt Gingrich: Preparing for an Iowa Harvest?

Former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich is announcing today that he's launching an “exploratory phase” to test the waters for a presidential run in 2012. His spokesperson told an Georgia radio host on Thursday that he’s launching a website,, but Gingrich is not forming a formal federal exploratory committee yet.

The rumors of Gingrich’s yen to take the oval office after a single Obama term have been swirling for over a year. He has been planting seeds in Iowa, a state whose early caucus is often a soothsayer for winning the Republican primary. For that reason, Gingrich has visited Iowa nine times in the past two years.

Gingrich and Iowa

In his cultivation of Iowa voters, former speaker Gingrich has staunchly supported the ethanol industry, which is a bumper crop in this midwestern state, called for the replacement of the Environmental Protection Agency, and calling it “the height of judicial arrogance,” demanded the removal of the three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. He’s also been touting his Christianity (a former Baptist who converted to his third wife’s Catholic faith two years ago) in order to both court the state’s large evangelical population and keep the focus on "stopping Obama's secular-socialist machine," (which happens to be the subtitle of Gringrich's latest book, To Save America.)

He’s working hard to convince social conservatives that his two divorces and charges of ethics violations don’t expose a weak moral character. On Monday, Gingrich will speak at the annual Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering in Waukee, Iowa, a town just outside Des Moines. He’ll be just one of five potential candidates there, “the first event of its kind in 2012 race with multiple potential candidates,” according to the group, which is also known as the Iowa Christian Alliance.  

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and former Lousiana Govenror Buddy Roemer will also be there, according to a press release sent last week.

Gingrich has fairly high favorbility ratings in Iowa polls, but he will have to beat out the other Republican contenders on the religious front, notably former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, if he decides to run. Huckabee was supported by many evangelicals and won the Republican caucus in 2008. In January, a Neighborhood Research poll among 556 Republican voters in Iowa showed 24 percent of Republican voters would support Huckabee for a Presidential run, while Gingrich only pulled in eight percent, ranking fourth.

Gingrich and Iowa Money

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential race, Gingrich flirted with a run (including some grassroots campaigning…in Second Life). He talked about waiting to hit a $30 million dollar threshold before committing and did a “feasibility study” about his chances, all the while bristling at being treated as just one in a pack of candidates. “I’m not a penguin,” he told Politico in 2007, calling the other hopefuls “a row of penguins.”

The decision to bow out of the 2008 race came down to advice from his lawyers: He couldn’t establish an exploratory committee and continue as chairman of his America Solutions PAC at the same time. So, he chose the latter, the New York Times reported in late September 2007.

Gingrich personally stayed out of the primary fundraising, waiting until August 2008 to contribute to John McCain, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But his American Solutions PAC has stayed busy, raising money and spending it—with a special focus on Iowa. It brought in a little more than $735,000 during the last cycle, and gave $100,000 of that to the House Majority Fund. In this case, House doesn’t refer to the chamber Gingrich used to run – it’s the Iowa House of Representatives, and the fund is a part of the Iowa Republican Party. American Solutions also gave three Congressional candidates got more than $10,000 contributions last fall (all three lost), and the unsuccessful Republican challenger for Iowa Attorney General received $2,500.

If his PAC's fundraising in the last election cycle is any indication, he’ll be turning his attention south and west to bring in campaign bucks. Two-thirds of his contributions over $1000 came from Texas, California, Virginia and Georgia, though the PAC did score one $500 contribution from a Waterloo, Iowa, business owner.

In Iowa, news of Gingrich’s potential candidacy was received with enthusiasm. “Newt is a powerful adversary for any contender in 2012,” Iowa State political scientist Steffen Schmidt said. “If Huckabee does not jump on his horse soon the pack will be out on the track and Newt’s coup is that he’s first out of the gate.”

Iowa Tea Party founder Ryan Rhodes said at the very least, Gingrich will elevate the conversation on the trail, and given Gingrich’s visibility at fundraisers for local Iowa races, his impact might not just be rhetorical.  “He’s done a lot of groundwork and we’ll see what pays off.”

But “he obviously has some things to answer for, as a lot candidates do,” Rhodes said, citing Gingrich’s personal life and his “sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi” in a global warming ad.

The Iowa Tea Party has its own plan to influence the debate, including a 20-city bus tour across the state in June. No word on Gingrich’s participation yet, but four other possible candidates -- Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – have expressed interest, Rhodes told the Des Moines Register.