There was no guarantee that Georgia gubernatorial candidate Andrew Hunt was going to get an opportunity to speak, but he went ahead and made the 1 1/2-hour drive up I-75 from Atlanta to be at this tea party meeting on a Tuesday night. Once he did arrive, the Libertarian and nanotechnology innovator was given five minutes — more than enough time to get across the spirit of his pitch of more jobs, less government.
“What I want to do is get back to a smaller, constitutionally based government, one where we have the liberties and freedoms as granted by our Constitution,” Hunt began. “Our government is overrun by special-interest groups and crony capitalism, and we need to re-establish the free-enterprise system.”
The night before, Hunt was more than 330 miles away, giving his stump speech to a crowded room of tea party empathizers in Savannah. There was a purpose behind his far-flung travel plans: finding common ground with these conservative activists is crucial for the underdog’s hope to compete with incumbent Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Democratic challenger Jason Carter.
The tea party movement emerged as a faction within the Republican Party in 2009, opposing high taxes and government intervention while favoring strict immigration laws. About 27 percent of Georgians identified as members of the tea party as recently as July 2010, according to a Mason-Dixon poll conducted for The Atlanta Jouranl-Constitution.
Georgia had the seventh-most Libertarians out of any state in 2010, according to an article by Dartmouth political scientist Jason Sorens for the Pileus Blog. Similarities to the tea party movement are easily drawn by Libertarian rhetoric, from campaign literature with declarations such as “Smaller Government, Lower Taxes, More Freedom” to Georgia Libertarian Chairman Doug Craig’s oft-repeated desire to see the federal government’s budget pulled back to only provide for its “constitutional” responsibilities, such as building and maintaining the interstate highway system and conducting foreign relations.
If Libertarians and tea party factions united to support a candidate with an anti-spending agenda, they would likely have the numbers to get 20 percent of the gubernatorial vote and form a legitimate political party under state law with ensured ballot access.
Hunt isn’t the only Georgia Libertarian to seek tea party support. U.S. Senate candidate Amanda Swafford played cornhole with constituents before speaking at a Gwinnett County Tea Party meeting on Aug. 26. Ted Metz, a contender for insurance commissioner, has joined Hunt on his grass-roots tour, while state House District 21 write-in candidate Jeff Amason has attended tea party events in Cherokee County in the past.
“There are a lot of folks in the tea party who align with Libertarians,” Amason said. “They are very liberty-minded, they are concerned with many of the same things we are, and they are looking for a way to express that.”
There are a few differences between the groups. Tea party activists tend to hold very conservative opinions on social issues, such as abortion and gay rights.
The Libertarian Party is defined by its socially liberal, fiscally conservative platform. They, like most tea partyers, favor lower taxes and less government spending. But they also support marriage equality and marijuana legalization.
At the heart of both groups’ mission is a desire to see growth in Georgia’s stagnant economy, which now has the 50th-highest unemployment rate in the country, including the District of Columbia, at 7.8 percent. It trails only Mississippi’s 8 percent.
“The tea party movement as a whole has always focused on the economic issues,” said Jerry Kotyuk, a board member of the Georgia Tea Party in Cobb County. “We want to have our states and counties not be addicted to this crack cocaine of government money.”
If the Libertarian moment has indeed arrived, as one New York Times article suggested in August, it will require crossover voters – a real possibility, says Ed Painter, a co-director of the Murray County Tea Party Patriots. The 66-year-old from Dalton seemingly has a business card for every hue of conservative red: one for his Georgia Voter Protection Committee membership, another for the anti-Obamacare Health Care Compact Alliance and another for his role as secretary of the Georgia Republican Party’s 14th Congressional District.
“In this movement, I see the Libertarian party coming out,” said Painter, who suggested that most tea party conservatives are embracing libertarian ideals.
Painter attended Republican conventions in the ’90s but became disenchanted. He went to his first tea party meeting in 2010, when groups emerged as a response to the growing national debt and general discomfort with government influence. Since then, he has seen the tea party’s beliefs distilled into what he says are core principles that most Libertarians could also rally behind: constitutionally limited government, free markets and fiscally conservative principles.
“The tea party movement has evolved and condensed out,” Painter said, “and I would say that most of the people who have stuck it out are more liberty-minded.”