In a sign that conservatives are coalescing behind Mitt Romney, the prominent Tea Party group FreedomWorks has dropped its opposition to the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney has fought from the beginning of his campaign to dispel concerns that he is not conservative enough, particularly given his support as governor for a Massachusetts universal health care law that became a template for President Obama's health care overhaul. He has consistently struggled with voters who identify as very conservative or as staunch Tea Party supporters.
The Affordable Care and Coverage Act has been a rallying point for the Tea Party, and Romney's backing a similar law is anathema in some circles. FreedomWorks cited that record in dropping out of a national Reclaiming America tour sponsored by the group Tea Party Express.
Romney has consistently supported expanding the role of government through government-run health care, Wall Street bailouts and spending hikes. Those positions are unacceptable to the tea party principles of lower taxes, less government and more freedom, Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, said in a press release at the time.
Conservatives' Ice Toward Romney Slowly Melting
But that animosity has begun to thaw as it becomes increasingly likely that Romney will be the nominee. FreedomWorks told the Washington Times that it would no longer oppose Romney's candidacy, although the organization stopped short of explicitly endorsing Romney.
It is a statistical fact that the numbers favor Mitt Romney, FreedomWorks vice president Russ Walker told the Washington Times. We are dedicated to defeating Obama and electing a conservative Senate that will help Romney repeal Obamacare and address the nation's economic and spending challenges.
Walker added that the Tea Party is leaderless movement, so it will be up to individuals to decide when and where they put their support.
Romney has gotten other encouraging signs from Tea Party-aligned voters. While he has ceded the Tea Party vote to Santorum or Gingrich in more conservative states like Tennessee and usually loses those who strongly support the Tea Party, Romney captured the majority of Tea Party supporters in demographically diverse Florida.
In Tuesday night's Illinois primary, Romney easily took voters who said they supported the Tea Party -- a majority of the electorate -- and those who said they felt neutral about the movement, beating Santorum in both categories by a double-digit margin. He essentially tied Santorum with voters who said they strongly support the Tea Party, about a third of voters overall, and handily won those said they somewhat support the movement.