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»An interactive graphic on how Georgia tea party-supported candidates have fared in primary elections through the past several election cycles: www.myajc.com/news/state-regional-govt-politics/tea-party-2014/.
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»A page collecting all the Senate candidates’ advertisements: MyAJC.com/senate/ad.
Tea party-backed candidates fell flat in Republican primaries Tuesday across Georgia. Tea party ideals, though, are doing just fine.
The tea party came on the scene in 2009, with Atlanta serving as the epicenter of the movement, forcefully espousing a small-government approach. It has at times clashed with business-tied Republican establishment leaders over candidate selection and legislative tactics — such as during the federal government shutdown last year.
The movement’s vitality has come into question this year, with losses in numerous GOP primaries. In Georgia, it failed to push one of its favorites into the runoff for a U.S. Senate seat, it never mounted a serious challenge to Gov. Nathan Deal and it faced setbacks in down-ticket races. But the Republicans who emerged Tuesday in the state’s top races have embraced many tea party priorities.
Both of the Senate runoff participants, veteran U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah and businessman David Perdue, campaigned as unwavering conservatives, and now they will fight for a likely smaller runoff electorate that favors activists, including tea partyers.
Kingston entered the race last year vowing that he wouldn’t be outflanked on the right and went on to vote against spending plans he helped craft in the U.S. House and join the crusade against the Affordable Care Act that helped lead to a government shutdown. He rejects Common Core education standards and immigration legislation that includes “amnesty.”
Perdue, who has tapped into the political network of his cousin former Gov. Sonny Perdue, says he shares all those stances, depicts himself as an outsider disgusted with Washington and even vowed to vote against Mitch McConnell as the Senate’s Republican leader if elected.
And Deal, a former U.S. House lawmaker, has often been viewed suspiciously by tea party elements because he was a Democrat more than 20 years ago. But he has shored up his conservative support by repeatedly refusing to expand Medicaid under the law known as Obamacare and supporting a gun rights expansion that many tea party activists applauded.
A tea party tempest
In the Senate race, the two candidates with the most tea party backing were former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of Athens, but both fell short of the July 22 runoff.
Former Dalton Mayor David Pennington, hoping to shock Deal’s re-election campaign, often talked about the wave of support he received at tea party gatherings in every corner of the state. But he couldn’t muster one-fifth of the vote.
Further down the ballot, tea party challenges to high-profile state legislators failed, and several tea party lawmakers were defeated or forced into runoffs by rivals backed by establishment forces.
The most closely watched of those races was a quixotic push by Debbie Dooley, a well-known tea party activist, to oust House Speaker David Ralston in favor of wrestling coach Sam Snider. Running on a tea party platform, Snider barely mustered one-third of the vote.
Tea party organizers said they took heart that Handel, Broun and U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta together mustered about 40 percent of the vote. They also pointed to the ouster of state Sen. Don Balfour, a longtime target who was recently exonerated on charges of fraud.
“The bottom line is that our message has been so well received, it’s forced the Republican Party to the right,” Dooley said.
Radio host Martha Zoller of Gainesville fell short as a tea party-backed candidate against now-U.S. Rep. Doug Collins in 2012. She said while there are elements of “establishment” in both Perdue and Kingston, they still had to appeal to the plurality of Georgia’s GOP primary voters who identify themselves as tea party adherents.
“You cannot say it’s a loss for the tea party when you look at the issues that were discussed and how the issues were discussed,” Zoller said.
But there are also signs that tea party voters are more concerned about electability than ideology. David Theiss is a retired home builder and part-time mayor of the tiny southwest Georgia town of Ellaville who got into politics through the religious right movement and considers himself a tea party fan.
Yet when he went to the polls Tuesday, he said one of the biggest factors was who could defeat Democrats in November. He cast a ballot for Deal, figuring that “unless there’s a compelling reason, there’s no way I want to change course in midstream.”
Headlines across the country this week blared victories for establishment Republicans over the tea party. McConnell blew away a tea party-backed primary challenger in Kentucky, as did U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in Idaho.
Rob Engstrom, the political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which backed McConnell, Simpson and Kingston — finds the perceived schism too simplistic. He said there are policy disagreements within both parties, but the news media do not spend as much time dissecting the Democrats.
“If tea party means less taxes, less spending, smaller government, I don’t think there’s anybody who disagrees with that inside this building,” Engstrom said.
Larry Sabato, the head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the difference between tea party and establishment candidates typically rests on tone rather than substance.
“I don’t think there’s that much of a difference in terms of actual positions,” Sabato said. “It’s the fervor with which you embrace them. Do you really believe in them? Will you stand up for these principles or melt like ice cream in the July sun?”
No tea party retreat
Several Georgia tea party organizers said the poor showing was a result of minuscule turnout. Less than 20 percent of the electorate cast a ballot during the primary, the earliest such vote in Georgia history. Julianne Thompson, a prominent tea party leader, said the barrage of negative ads did voters no favors.
“John Q. Citizen genuinely wonders why should they waste their time,” she said. “And among the citizens that did turn out to vote, very few of them knew anything about the candidates other than the few commercials that they saw on television.”
An even lower turnout is expected in the July 22 runoff, which could play more to the tea party as the most fervent supporters may turn the tide. And in U.S. House GOP runoffs, tea party-backed candidates such as Barry Loudermilk of Cassville (11th District) and Jody Hice of Monroe (10th District) remain in contention.
Thompson hasn’t decided who she will support in the Senate race, saying she has her concerns about both candidates. Ultimately, though, she said she’s concerned with one thing above all else: which Republican stands the best chance of defeating Democrat Michelle Nunn and helping to flip the chamber to GOP hands?
“In the end,” she said, “it is about making sure that Harry Reid does not have another member of the Senate to promote his leftist agenda.”