Tea party effect unclear

The good news about the tea party movement, Jack Pierce of Woodstock said, is that it’s not organized in a conventional sense.

The bad, Pierce said, is that it’s not organized in a conventional sense.

And therein lies the challenge for the burgeoning movement that has swept across the political landscape by tapping a huge vein of voter unrest about government at the state and federal levels. Can a movement with supporters easily numbering in the tens of thousands in Georgia alone, but with no real central core, focus its collective energy in a meaningful way, especially with seven Republicans — the most likely recipients of tea party votes — running for governor?

The answer isn’t clear. There are more than 100 tea party groups in Georgia alone, and while they all seem to share the same passion for limited government, fiscal conservatism and halting illegal immigration, they’re not always on the same page when it comes to strategy, tactics or candidates. In fact, some of the groups downright don’t like each other.

Pierce, 48, a health insurance agent and tea party supporter, said that even without a central structure, the sheer number of tea party voters will force candidates to “conform.”

“Not because the tea party says you have to, but because they have so many conservative and right-centrists within the party, and that is so influential,” Pierce said. “The conservative right, all conservatives for that matter, have no choice but to lean in that direction.”

That might be where the tea party is having its greatest impact. It has forced candidates to incorporate tea party rhetoric into their campaigns and to seek tea party support.

The gubernatorial candidates are no exception.

“One thing that’s changed in the campaigning is that in addition to going to local Republican Party debates and monthly meetings, we’re going to tea party gatherings all over the state,” said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for the Republican gubernatorial campaign of former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal. “Many of these are highly attended, with very enthusiastic attendees, many of whom have probably not been this politically active in the past.”

Doug Grammer, the GOP chairman for the 9th Congressional District, said candidates are wise to reach out to tea party members.

“These people are going to vote, they are going to put up yard signs and they’re going to talk to their friends about who they support.”

Doug Brownlee, an organizer of the Heart of Georgia Tea Party Patriots in Dublin, said the members of his group are motivated.

“We’re getting folks who have never been involved in politics, that have never cared, but they’re scared,” he said. “The nation’s going down the tubes, and everybody’s scared. They’re tired of screaming at the TV, and they’re ready to do something.”

So, they are holding their own candidate forums and organizing rallies. One group, the Georgia Tea Party, created a voter guide that details each candidate’s positions on issues such as states’ rights and immigration, although it doesn’t give candidates a grades or scores.

Georgia’s many tea party organizations appear unlikely to endorse any of the men and women running for governor.

“There is no consensus on who to endorse because there is not one candidate who can say ‘I am the tea party candidate’ and be truthful,” Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party and a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, said. “Support is divided among the candidates.”

That’s significant, too, because recent history has shown a tea party endorsement can make a difference. In May’s special election for Georgia’s 9th Congressional District, former state Rep. Tom Graves was endorsed by the Atlanta Tea Party (even though its territory is outside the district), but not the Dalton Tea Party or the Murray County Tea Parties that operate in the district. His opponent in the June runoff, former state Sen. Lee Hawkins was not.

Graves, who was a follower of the tea party movement from its conception in 2009, touted his tea party backing with stunning efficiency. Nearly every new release from his campaign mentioned it; he offered it as a credential on the trail. Hawkins, however, went the other direction on the tea party — at one point his spokesman said Hawkins was “not really associated with it at all.”

Tea party endorsements have also had an impact in races around the country.

The most notable example was in Kentucky, where tea party favorite Rand Paul beat an establishment Republican candidate for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination. In Nevada, too, Sharron Angle rode tea party support to a surprise win for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate.

Still, it’s difficult to predict what kind of impact tea party members will have on Georgia’s upcoming primaries, especially in the race for governor.

A June poll of Georgia voters conducted by SurveyUSA found that 76 percent of Republican voters here have a favorable opinion of the tea party movement. But ask that 76 percent which candidate for governor they’re supporting in the primary, and the results track with the overall Republican outcome. Thirty-five percent of tea party backers said they were supporting Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine for governor. Thirty-four percent of GOP voters overall back Oxendine.

The results hold down the line:

● Former Secretary of State Karen Handel gets 19 percent of the tea party vote; 18 percent of GOP voters overall.

● Deal gets 18 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

● Former state Sen. Eric Johnson: 6 percent and 6 percent.

Those results suggest there’s little separation between tea party adherents and more mainstream Republican voters.

Steve Anthony, a lecturer on politics at Georgia State University, said the tea party movement in Georgia could be minimized by the sheer strength of the Republican Party here.

It is, he said, “a tribute to the power of the Republican Party in this state. There’s not as much dissatisfaction. ”

Amanda Davis, 30, a real estate agent in Douglasville and a tea party supporter, agreed.

“I haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for” for governor, she said. “I haven’t necessarily been unhappy with how government in Georgia has been run, so I can’t say, ‘Oh, we need a huge change.’ ”

Many tea party voters from across the state said they’ve yet to truly focus on the July 20 primaries.

“I haven’t done the research yet, so I don’t know who I’m going to be voting for,” said Jeff Gardner, 30, of Canton, adding that he’s most concerned about spending.

Pierce, the Woodstock health insurance agent, said he doesn’t know either. He’s been busy with his son’s all-star baseball team and work. But, he said, he will do his own vetting as the election gets closer.

While they might not have a candidate in mind, they do know the issues that matter.

Betsy Shaw Kramer, 52, a stay-at-home-mom in Johns Creek, wants someone who will stand up for states’ rights, be fiscally responsible, create jobs and not raise taxes.

“I would like to find a person who is honest, trustworthy and has [some] integrity, but I am not too sure you can completely find a person like that,” she said.

Kramer, though, bucks the trend of voters who haven’t done their own research yet on candidates in the race. She said she won’t vote for a Democrat. She said she was leaning toward Handel but doesn’t like how she is “dancing around” questions of whether she was a member of the Log Cabin Republicans. It doesn’t matter whether she was a member of the group of gay Republicans, Kramer said, she just needs to tell the truth. Oxendine, she said, has gotten too much support from insurance companies he is supposed to regulate. “That scares me.”

Deal, Kramer said, “has some ethical issues he needs to explain better,” but she likes what he’s said on issues.

“It’s not a resounding endorsement, but the lesser of evils,” she said.

But tea party organizers here don’t seem concerned about the candidate-picking business.

“The tea party is about conservative issues, not partisanship,” said Mike Morton, co-founder of the Rome/Floyd GA Tea Party. “We won’t endorse or support anyone, but we’re going to — as individuals — support conservative candidates.”

The movement’s support, Morton said, goes beyond sign-waving.

“It’s being involved in the process and getting results,” he said. “We’re about accomplishing things, and the tea party folks — I promise you — vote.”

About the Georgia Newspaper Partnership

In an unprecedented move to combine journalistic resources, 13 daily newspapers — from Valdosta to Chattanooga and including the AJC — have formed an historic partnership to deliver comprehensive political coverage across Georgia during the state’s 2010 election. The Georgia Newspaper Partnership will reach 2.2 million readers. With a dizzying number of candidates running for office, participating editors felt it crucial to provide as much information as possible on candidates and issues to all of Georgia’s residents. Over the next several months the partnership will deliver coverage of the gubernatorial and congressional races and support three statewide political polls.

How we got the story

Reporters from the AJC and seven other members of the Georgia Newspaper Partnership fanned out across the state to talk to tea party organizers and voters. In addition, the AJC interviewed political experts and campaigns to gauge their attempts to recruit support from tea party activists. Below is a list of the contributing newspapers and reporters:

● Augusta Chronicle: Susan McCord

● Chattanooga Times Free Press: Andy Johns

● Columbus Ledger-Enquirer: Alan Riquelmy

● Dalton Daily Citizen: Charles Oliver

● Macon Telegraph: Rodney Manley

● Rome News-Tribune: Diane Wagner

● Statesboro Herald: Phil Boyum