Infidelity, divorce, and Newt Gingrich: Can voters get past his record?

Newt Gingrich with then-gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer
Minnpost photo by Terry Gydesen
Newt Gingrich with then-gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer

Ronald Reagan was America’s only divorced president. And several men who occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – Bill Clinton perhaps most notably in contemporary times – were unfaithful to their spouses.

But there’s only one candidate seeking the nation’s highest office this year who has both knocks against him: Republican Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Gingrich’s opponents are bound to make an issue of it. Politico reported Tuesday that guests staying in a Des Moines hotel found a flier slipped under their doors from a group calling itself Christian Leaders in Government. It asked: “If Newt Gingrich can’t be faithful to his wife, how can we trust him to be faithful to conservative voters?”

Anonymous slander campaigns aren’t a new thing, especially in contests in early caucus and primary states. True or not, they can pick up steam there, and groups like the as-yet-unidentifiable organization – or maybe individual – responsible for the Gingrich flier can do damage before anyone knows who is behind the effort. But in 2012, with voters concerned about a series of serious pocketbook issues, from jobs to taxes to health insurance, will they be swayed by the personal shortcomings of the candidates? And if they are, how does Gingrich address the matter in a thoughtful way that satisfies Americans?

If Gingrich were to secure the nomination – he is rivaling presumed front-runner Mitt Romney in recent national polls despite a financial and organizational disadvantage – he would surely have to discuss his past personal choices, say campaign watchers.

“He’s going to have to address it,” says David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, in Carbondale. “I think it will come up. It’s part of his narrative and his story, and he’s going to have to talk about it.”

But Mr. Yepsen says voters aren’t likely to dwell on Gingrich’s past – though he is twice divorced, and left his first wife following her treatment for cancer. He left his second wife for a staff member who is now his third wife, Callista.

“People want to move on,” Yepsen says, from the politics of personal destruction. “We want solutions to the larger problems. I think that’s what’s attracting a lot of people to Newt Gingrich. He’s a thoughtful guy. He has ideas.”

Yepsen, who wrote about politics for the Des Moines Register for more than three decades, adds: “He’s the only candidate I’ve ever seen where audiences take notes.”

Not everyone agrees. Salon’s Joan Walsh outlines Gingrich’s flaws and foibles in a Tuesday column. She concludes: “The seemingly affable professor and author is a hothead with many political liabilities and almost as many enemies. He’s committed so many political and ethical transgressions that his baggage has baggage.”

Still, the thresholds of religion and race have been breached in recent political history: Americans have sent a Roman Catholic to the White House and an African-American. In an era when half of Americans get divorced, Gingrich might benefit from the new social norms.

Gingrich told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham last week he expects questions about his marriages and infidelity. He said he will respond by noting that he is happily married to Callista and that he has reconciled his behavior with God.

“People have to look at me and decide. I’m a 68-year-old grandfather,” Gingrich said. “I learned a great deal in life. I think today I am prepared to be the kind of president the United States needs. And I think we need leadership that is capable of getting very large change to get us back to full employment, to balance the budget again, and to strengthen our national security. And I think if people decide that’s true, the odds are very high that I will be the nominee and as nominee that I will defeat Barack Obama.”

A CNN/ORC survey released Monday indicates that voters are sampling what Gingrich is peddling. Mr. Romney leads the crowded Republican field with 24 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters. Gingrich is at 22 percent, and businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are at 14 and 12 percent, respectively. Everyone else in the field is at or below 8 percent in the national poll.

A Public Policy Polling report released Monday, too, shows Gingrich ahead of Mr. Cain and Romney, 28 percent to Cain’s 25 percent and Romney’s 18 percent.

The challenge for Gingrich, then, is to find a lasting connection with social conservatives – in Iowa, in particular. A finish of first or second place there could catapult him into the top tier for next-stage contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and beyond.

Marlys Popma, former executive director of the Iowa GOP and founder of Iowa Right to Life, calls Gingrich “the ideas man.” Ms. Popma, a five-cycle veteran of the presidential caucus process who is unaffiliated this year, says Gingrich communicates his proposals well with voters of varied backgrounds. She calls the Jan. 3 Iowa contest “the most open-ended caucus cycle I have experienced.”

“The big story in all this is the people of Iowa, social conservatives, have so many people to pick from,” she says. “I don’t think anybody is going to know what’s going to happen until the night of the caucuses.”

Monitor researcher Leigh Montgomery contributed to this story.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Lauren Maker on 11/16/2011 - 09:14 am.

    Actually, Newt left his first wife while she was recovering from cancer–he told her he was leaving as she was coming to out of cancer surgery. A compassionate conservative, no doubt.

    What is likely to trip him up even more, particularly with independent voters, is his failure to pay child support–$100 a month out of his Congressional salary that was what?–$85,000 or so at the time? Love those conservatives and their track record on personal responsibility.

    Even conservative vaules voters do look at how someone’s ideas translate into practice–and that’s where Newt falls flat, in areas other than his personal life as well.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/16/2011 - 11:18 am.

    It seems to me that Bill Clinton lowered the bar on the criteria for acceptable past behavior to the point that bringing up anyone’s personal baggage now has to be seen as irrelevant and a double standard.

    I mean, if Clinton’s serial skirt chasing and Obama’s past cocaine use gets barely a mention in the mainstream press, being married and divorced a few times seems rather quaint in comparison.

    That Gingrich has the distinction of having authored balanced budgets for four years in a row should alone cause people to seriously consider his candidacy.

  3. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/16/2011 - 09:00 pm.

    You don’t even have to go into the gutter get to Newt’s slime.

    Newt was helped birth the individual mandate along with the Heritage Foundation, Romney birthed it, and Obama expanded it.

    If the GOP really despised Obamacare, and not just Obama, then why are the father and grandfather of Obamacare in the GOP primary?

    Newt got $1.6 million from Freddie Mac at the same time as he was telling Obama to return Freddie money.

  4. Submitted by Ann Richards on 11/16/2011 - 10:20 pm.

    Newt was pushing impeachment hearings on Pres Clinton for his indiscretions at exactly the same time he was cheating on his own wife.

    voters may overlook his marriage failures and his cheating, but not paying child support? That is a stretch.

  5. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 11/17/2011 - 01:23 am.

    At some point the GOP is going to finally have to make a decision. Do they want to nominate a pygmy – of which Newt is merely the latest example – and essentially concede the election? Or do they want to nominate he who’s name cannot be spoken – and probably lose.

    Despite all the whining about what a weak candidate Obama is, the fact is that the GOP doesn’t even have a single credible candidate to put up.

    This tells you a lot about the current bankruptcy of the right wing dominated GOP in America.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 11/17/2011 - 07:32 am.

    The next republican flavor of the month, Newt, comes with moral and political warts and the republicans know that. That is why he polls in the 20s along with the other front runners. 80% of republicans are unhappy with their choices and yet it is what it is for them. One by one their candidates fall from favor. Their talking points are all bogus but they have stuck to them so long they can’t abandon them. The republicans are in a very tight corner and have no way out. Their stance of yesterday they were for it and today they are against it has left them without an identifiable core from which to run their campaigns.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/17/2011 - 07:54 am.

    “Newt was pushing impeachment hearings on Pres Clinton for his indiscretions at exactly the same time he was cheating on his own wife.”

    What difference did that make? You thought Clinton was innocent anyway.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/17/2011 - 07:58 am.

    “Newt got $1.6 million from Freddie Mac at the same time as he was telling Obama to return Freddie money.”

    Not likely. Newt received that money over ten years from a $15,000/month consulting contract. Obama was still voting “present” in the Illinois legislature.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/17/2011 - 08:04 am.

    “Despite all the whining about what a weak candidate Obama is, the fact is that the GOP doesn’t even have a single credible candidate to put up.”

    The GOP candidates include three accomplished governors, a speaker of the house who balanced the federal budget four years running and a successful CEO who turned around a failing business.

    Obama’s 2008 resume lacked experience, accomplishments and leadership credentials and his 2012 campaign can’t run on his record because he’s been an abject failure.

    Other than that you may have a point.

  10. Submitted by Ann Richards on 11/17/2011 - 01:40 pm.

    Interesting response to my comment……it makes a difference to me because Gingrich was taking the moral high ground (remember Contract with America); and I would say that if you are screwing around with a staff member while married and conducting hearings and pushing for the impeachment of the Pres over the same issues at that same time, that is lacking the moral high ground. Walk into a roomful of women and ask them if they see a difference as I laid it out. And for what it is worth- I lost an equal amount of respect for Pres Clinton. You assume Liberals and Independents are lemmings. Your responses are too often only black and white. I would encourage you to see some gray.

  11. Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 11/18/2011 - 09:49 am.

    If progs can forgive Barry Soetoro for attending a racist, anti-Semitic church for 20 years, and support Keith Ellison, notwithstanding his:

    1. past association with the Nation of Islam;
    2. participation in the sponsorship of the anti-Semitic speech by Kwame Ture,
    3. support of the Vice Lords during the murder trial of a police officer;
    4. failing to pay $25,000 in federal income taxes; ignored fines incurred for parking tickets and moving violations resulting in the suspension of his driver’s license;
    5. fined for willful violation of Minnesota’s campaign finance reporting law;
    6 appearance on stage with the notorious anti-Semite Khalid Abdul Muhammad; and,
    7. his subsequent associations with CAIR, ISNA, MAS, MPAC, and NAIF.

    You can refer to Power Line Blog and the Middle East Quarterly for details and source material.

    I don’t think Mr. Gingrichs’ personal problems should be much of a problem for you.

    Right, guys?

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