As North Carolina votes, a test of tea party strength in Ga. looms

A big test of the tea party's future comes today as North Carolina primary voters decide whether to go with the establishment's pick or a conservative insurgency. Fuzzier battle lines are being drawn in Georgia.

Former Secretary of State Karen Handel on Tuesday picked up the endorsement of the Tea Party Express for Georgia's open Senate seat. The group, one of the more powerful tea party organizations, promises to back Handel with deeds as well as words, though the campaign wouldn't say how much money they expect will be spent.

“There are several good candidates in this race, but Karen is the only one who combines a conservative record and a proven ability to win a statewide election,” said Taylor Budowich, the group's executive director.

It's a blow to Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, the candidates who have tried the most to affiliate with the tea party movement. Broun on Monday released the names of five tea party groups who have thrown him support.

Businessman David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston, while not running away from the tea party, have been more aggressively courting mainstream Republican voters. For Kingston, it paid dividends with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's endorsement - a sign that some of the most influential voices in the GOP establishment are backing him.

Today's vote in North Carolina will offer hints about the internal battle between tea partiers and the business-backed wing of the party. House Speaker Thom Tillis, the establishment pick dubbed "Big Business Tillis" by critics, needs to earn at least 40 percent of a vote against two tea party challengers to avoid a runoff. Some analysts predict he will do exactly that.

Georgia isn't as cut and dry. None of the five top Republican candidates is expected to earn the majority needed to avoid a July 22 runoff, and each is actively seeking support from both wings of the party. Witness what Kingston said last week when we asked if the Chamber's blessing could wind up hurting him:

"Five candidates sought this endorsement. The reason why they did is they know that Georgians right now who are unemployed and underemployed are looking for opportunities for further advancement ... That's what I've consistently been for - pro-jobs and pro-growth. Those issues are very important to the tea party and very important to Main Street Georgians and to families all over this state. I think that having this endorsement is a good thing."

Handel's campaign, meanwhile, trumpets the backing of the Tea Party Express as a sign of growing momentum.

"Conservatives like Governor Sarah Palin, Erick Erickson, and Tea Party Express are rallying around Karen Handel because they all agree that Karen is the only conservative in this race that can defeat liberal Michelle Nunn," said Handel campaign manager Corry Bliss.