A different sort of soul-searching envelops Georgia Republicans after shutdown fiasco

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The AJC’s Greg Bluestein wanted to hear what Republican voters wanted out of their politicians in the wake of the shutdown. He traveled to town hall meetings across north Georgia in the last week, catching U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Senate candidate Karen Handel and Gov. Nathan Deal at three separate events.

In other corners of the country, Republicans talk of launching a counteroffensive against the tea party forces that engineered this month’s government shutdown. But here in Georgia, opinions are quite different.

At GOP gatherings across the state, rank-and-file members express frustration that the shutdown ended in a whimper and concern that not enough die-hard conservatives are in office.

While many are upset that the effort to gut the health-care law by holding up essential funding didn’t work, they do support the spirit of the fight. And they are letting Republican leaders know it every chance they get.

At a gathering in Sandy Springs, hardliners who were willing to continue with the shutdown pressed U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson on his vote to reopen the government. In a cramped Ringgold conference room, business owners urged Gov. Nathan Deal to outline how he would slow the health-care overhaul in light of the shutdown’s failure to stop it. And curious voters in Alpharetta challenged Senate candidate Karen Handel on how she could chart a better course.

“We have the no backbone camp and the backbone camp inside the GOP,” said Lovick Evans, an engineer who was at Handel’s event at an all-you-can-eat diner. “The ones without backbones are the ones who have been in office longer, and the new group has the backbones. We just need more backbone.”

Just as telling were the reactions from the three leaders, whose responses to their party’s October offensive underscored the divide over its next step. Each articulated a different strategy to dislodge President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul and force a confrontation with Democrats on new spending cuts.

And all recognized the risk of a replay of the last few weeks that looms again in January, when another fight could erupt over another funding bill that’s needed to keep the government running.

Isakson, a critic of GOP tactics that led to the shutdown, told the crowd to concentrate on the victories his party extracted in reaching a deal with Democrats to fund the government. One was tighter income verification requirements for the new insurance exchange marketplace. He also attacked a media that he said largely "espouse the Democratic line" and tilt the playing field.

“They are trying to demonize the tea party for the Democrats,” he said. “We have to realize there’s a method to their madness. They’d love to divide us against each other.”

That type of argument was a recurring theme in the post-shutdown meetings, where GOP partisans attacked both the message and the medium. Polls show Republicans in Congress with dismal approval ratings in the wake of the shutdown.

“We need to get the Republican Party’s messaging fixed. They have no messaging capability and we end up looking like schmucks,” said Bryan Chamberlain, who was frustrated that the party seemingly failed at communicating its side of the story. “I’m looking for somebody to get the message out, but it takes the media.”

Handel, one of five high-profile Republicans in the Senate race, said the shutdown strategy was too little, too late. She said her party should have “thrown down the gauntlet” when the law first reached a vote four years ago.

“Three years went by and we waited until literally weeks before implementation until we decided this was going to be a gauntlet moment,” she said. But once the fight was engaged, she said, “I would have held the line. I would have kept the shutdown going. The other side just did a better job.”

There was some hand-wringing at the three meetings over the tea party's aggressive tendency to challenge incumbents it doesn't see as true believers in the conservative cause. Several participants wondered aloud how to unite the party, and there's vocal support among national leaders for asserting more control over tea party insurgents.

But many in Georgia seemed willing to go after their own.

"Washington isn't getting the job done. You have to think positively, but I don't know how much change can be made for at least a few more election cycles," said Earl Gray, a GOP city councilman in Fort Oglethorpe who was at a northwest Georgia meeting. "People are getting fed up, and they'll make their concerns known at the polls."

Deal, a former nine-term congressman, has had time to ruminate on the party’s path as he crisscrosses the state in a re-election bid. The latest event, at a gathering Tuesday, featured a room full of fidgety business leaders in Ringgold who stressed aloud over the health-care law’s impact.

The governor said in an interview afterward that the complaints from his party’s faithful led him to believe the GOP should adopt a new strategy that puts balancing the federal budget firmly at the center. That principle, he said, guided the party during the federal shutdowns of 1995 and 1996.

“If my Republican friends would resume their focus on balancing the federal budget, I think more people would agree with that,” said Deal, who served in the House during those epic budget battles.

“The point is that we should refocus on the issue of balancing the federal budget. Right now, I don’t know that the public can tell you what the party’s focus is on, other than Obamacare. And the defunding approach just didn’t resonate with the American public.”

Then there are those like Brandon Welborn, a Habersham County tea party activist who said he was so disillusioned by the Republican response that he favors a approach.

“I’d rather the government not be doing anything than doing something detrimental,” said Welborn, a postal worker. “I’d rather pay them to accomplish absolutely nothing than continuing to clutter things up.”

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