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Gingrich Tests The Waters For 2012 Run, Carefully

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaking at a news conference Thursday in Atlanta, says he is launching a website to explore a run for president.
Mike Stewart
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaking at a news conference Thursday in Atlanta, says he is launching a website to explore a run for president.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has spent years traveling America to promote conservative causes and candidates. So on Thursday in Georgia, the state he used to represent in Congress, it seemed like the right time to announce something.

And this was it.

"Because of our concern for the future of the country, our concern for our grandchildren, and all of the children of this country who are faced with, I think, a very dramatic choice of which future we are going to have — we are today establishing a website: NewtExplore2012.com."

It's the digital-era version of what federal election law calls "testing the waters" — a website asking people to comment, and asking them for money.

"We will look at this very seriously, and we will very methodically lay out the framework of what we'll do next," Gingrich said.

A big part of that methodical laying-out will involve Gingrich's existing framework, known in political circles as Newt Inc.

There's Newt.org; the Gingrich Group; Gingrich Communications; Gingrich Productions; the American Solutions political action committee — which raised $736,000 in the 2010 election cycle; and especially American Solutions for Winning the Future, a so-called 527 political organization that in the 2010 cycle raised more than $28 million. That's more money than any other GOP White House hopeful could round up.

But here's the rub: If Gingrich were to announce that he's a candidate, he'd have to walk away from American Solutions for the duration of the campaign. That's because millions of dollars came in unregulated contributions as big as $1 million each.

The Federal Election Commission says that even as someone "testing the waters," Gingrich can't use American Solutions money for water-testing activities such as meeting potential donors or traveling to primary states — or even paying for the new website.

"The concept behind it is, you raise a little bit of money, and you run some polling that nationally tests your name ID, tests your viability," says Jason Torchinsky, a campaign finance lawyer in Virginia. "And it allows you to kind of get a head start before you cross the Rubicon and become an FEC-recognized candidate."

By sticking his metaphorical toe in, Gingrich steps out ahead of the other high-profile Republican possibilities. But some of them have been using their own non-candidate organizations to lay out the framework that they want.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, for example, set up a political action committee not in Mississippi, Iowa or New Hampshire — but in Georgia.

Paul Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, says that's because Georgia has "virtually no restrictions on money in politics."

Barbour, says Ryan, "is using contributions from corporations that would be illegal under federal law to, for example, buy Republican Party voter registration lists in Iowa."

But if that seems like a problem, Ryan says the Federal Election Commission probably won't think so. It has a history of leniency toward politicians who have an eye on the White House.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.