By Michael Beckel
Former Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who served as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 through 1998, is testing the waters of a presidential run.
Gingrich, who was Time's "Man of the Year" in 1995 for his role in the 1994 Republican revolution, announced today that he was "seriously" considering running for president and has launched a new website to explore the possibility.
His announcement stopped short of officially christening a presidential exploratory committee -- typically, a precursor to a formal presidential bid. But such a committee is expected to be formed in the near future.
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The Federal Election Commission allows candidates to engage in "testing the waters activities," such as traveling around the country to determine if their candidacy would have sufficient support, prior to registering as an official candidate.
If an individual who is testing the waters meets certain criteria, FEC rules require him or her to formally file a statement of candidacy and begin regularly filing campaign finance reports.
These conditions include making statements referring to himself or herself as a candidate, raising more money than what is reasonably needed to test the waters or taking action to qualify for the ballot.
No disclosure of fund-raising is necessary if candidates explore the possibility of running and decide not to.
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Since he resigned from Congress in January 1999, Gingrich has maintained a national profile, writing several books, appearing as a paid contributor on Fox News and serving as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
(On Wednesday, Fox News temporarily suspended his contract ahead of a presumed presidential announcement to avoid potential in-kind contributions, as OpenSecrets Blog noted earlier today.)
He's also continued to expand his Rolodex and raise a lot of money.
In 2006, Gingrich formed a tax-exempt political committee under section 527 of the U.S. tax code. His committee, called American Solutions for Winning the Future, has raised $52 million since its inception, including $28.2 million during 2009 and 2010, as OpenSecrets Blog previously reported.
The group has focused on energy policy, education reform and the economy, including the importance of conservative fiscal policies.
Many of Gingrich's group's wealthy benefactors have been energy industry interests, as well as business magnates such as Sheldon Adelson, chairman and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Sands casino, and James France, the executive vice president of NASCAR.
During his last two years in Congress, Gingrich raised $6.8 million. During the 1998 election cycle, his top contributors included health professionals, the insurance industry, real estate interests, conservative groups and retirees.
He was also the No. 1 beneficiary in the House of money the food and beverage industry, which includes Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, a company whose political action committee and employees gave Gingrich $14,420 during the 1998 election cycle.
Only three other organizations, through their PACs and employees, gave Gingrich more during the 1998 election cycle: tobacco manufacturer UST Inc. ($16,250), financial services firm Citigroup ($16,000) and Golden Rule Financial ($15,000).
Gingrich has also operated several leadership PACs, including the Monday Morning PAC, which shut down in 1999, and the Friends of Newt Gingrich PAC, which shut down in 2000. During the 2010 election cycle, he launched a new PAC -- known as American Solutions PAC -- which raised $736,700 and donated $10,500 to a combined nine Republican congressional candidates.
Gingrich is the first big-name politician to officially form a presidential exploratory committee -- although a few dark horse candidates are already in the race for the GOP nomination.
For instance, Fred Karger, a longtime Republican political consultant, formed a presidential exploratory committee in August 2010 and has since campaigned frequently in Iowa and New Hampshire. In November, he aired his first television advertisements, as OpenSecrets Blog previously reported.
Karger is an outspoken gay rights activist who has worked to expose the Mormon Church's role in funding opposition to same-sex marriage-related ballot measures. He is also the first openly gay man to seek a major party presidential nomination.
Furthermore, Herman Cain, a conservative radio talk show host, former chief executive officer of Godfather's Pizza and former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, formed a presidential exploratory committee in January 2011. Cain has a strong following in some Tea Party circles and recently won a presidential straw poll at a Tea Party convention in Arizona.
And former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Roemer, a longtime Democrat who became a Republican in 1991, also announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee this afternoon. Roemer has pledged to cap contributions to his campaign at $100 and to forgo money from political action committees.
Several other high-profile Republicans are expected to vie for the ability to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012. The Center for Responsive Politics offers more information here on these potential candidates.