People gather at Liberty Plaza, near the state Capitol, for a rally Monday marking the 10th anniversary of the tea party’s first major demonstration in Atlanta. That first one drew thousands of conservatives, but Monday’s event, organized by Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, attracted fewer than 50. (Photo by Greg Bluestein)

Small rally marks tea party’s big impact in Georgia

Ten years ago, thousands of conservatives flocked to Georgia’s Statehouse for the first major tea party rally in Atlanta. An anniversary celebration that featured prominent Republican speakers on Monday drew fewer than 50 people.

The sparse crowd underscored the tea party’s challenges in Georgia. The movement helped shape Republican politics over the past decade, morphing its focus from fiscal policy to one that’s defined GOP stances on health care, immigration and other issues.

But the activists now struggle to retain the same influence over the political system they helped create. They’ve learned it can be harder to energize Georgia tea party members when Republicans control both the Statehouse and the White House.

“Anger is a very motivating emotion,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, describing the organization’s pivot.

“What we are doing now is less about being angry and more about laying the groundwork for two different visions. One is socialist. The other is liberty-based,” she said.

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That was a theme echoed by a string of speakers who characterized liberal politicians as a threat to core American values.

“There are no more Democrats. The Zell Millers of the world are gone. What remains of the so-called Democratic Party are socialists, progressives, Communists and fascists,” said Jason Thompson, a Republican National committeeman.

In the audience and on stage, the tea party leaders cast the movement’s future as an enduring marriage between fiscal conservative policies and culturally social stances embraced by evangelical Christians.

Some used their speeches to call for new abortion restrictions or push for new crackdowns on illegal immigration. One described an incident involving a transgender student at a school as a “symptom of a culture that is sick.”

And there were fond memories of a decade ago, when the tea party movement seemed to “explode and sweep the country like wildfire,” said Ralph Reed of the Faith andFreedom Coalition.

“We were a remnant. It’s so easy today to forget how hopeless what we stood for looked like,” Reed said. “Barack Obama had just been elected by a landslide. The left wing of the Democratic Party had 60 votes in the Senate.

“We were being rolled over like a steamroller. They said what we stood for was a relic of the past and that we were done for.”

Some Democrats see the movement not just as a rival political faction, but also as a trailblazing force that gave rise to the anti-establishment policies that animate President Donald Trump, such as a hostility toward immigrants in the U.S. illegally and fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

Indeed, there were repeated calls to support both Trump and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who was the marquee speaker at Monday’s event.

Perdue embraced tea party supporters during his first run for office in 2014, casting the federal debt as the nation’s biggest crisis, and on Monday he urged them to rally behind him again as he runs for another term.

To applause from the handful of people at Liberty Plaza, he said apathy will lead to a Democratic sweep of Washington and a domino effect that could trigger a permanent electoral shift.

Under his scenario, he warned, Democrats would seek to give statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, end Senate filibuster rules that allow the minority party to block votes, and abolish the Electoral College.

“If they win Georgia, they win the White House,” he said, adding: “It’s up to us to make sure we don’t sit back, like some of us did in 2012, and let it happen.”

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