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 its way across the political landscape by tapping a huge vein of voter unrest with government at the state and federal levels. Can a movement with supporters easily numbering in the tens of thousands in Georgia alone but 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 groups in Georgia alone, and while they all seem to share the same passion for limited government, fiscal conservatism and immigration reform, 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.
Political conformity expected of candidates
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 the 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, has 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 party rhetoric into their campaigns and to actively seek 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.”
Northwest Georgia a Tea Party hotbed
The Tea Party has a solid following in Greater Rome and Northwest Georgia.
Organizers insist the group is nonpartisan, but no Democratic candidates have shown up at two forums and most of the attendees have ties to the Republican Party.
Founding member Mike Morton resigned the chairmanship of the Floyd County Republican Party in April, a year after he and Layla Shipman, Rome Young Republican chairwoman, put together the county’s first Georgia Tax Day Tea Party.
“The revolution starts tomorrow,” Morton posted to the group’s Facebook page a day before the rally.
Morton said the Facebook site, numbering more than 341 friends, reaches out to anyone who believes strongly in the party’s four core principles: support for the U.S. Constitution, smaller federal government, fiscal responsibility and the free market.
“The Tea Party is about conservative issues, not partisanship,” he said. “We won’t endorse or support anyone, but we’re going to — as individuals — support conservative candidates.”
Several prominent Republicans have muttered privately that Tea Party rhetoric could turn off the moderate voters needed to win an election. But the ones who turn out for the forums insist Tea Party values cast a wide net.
“It’s love of country that motivates me,” said Elaine Watson. “The founders started out with certain principles, and we’ve gotten away from that.”
Mike Hadaway said he voted Republican for 40 years, but now he uses the word “conservative” to define his politics.
“It happened sometime during the second Bush administration, but it had been inside me for a while,” Hadaway said. “I just didn’t have any options.”
Larry Madden’s interest in politics long took a back seat to his love of hiking. But when he stepped down as president of the Georgia Pinhoti Trail Association, the Tea Party movement caught his attention.
He sends a computer avatar to the Tea Party March on Washington and other events across the country, and is beginning to become active locally.
“I’m a big proponent of open government and the core principles of the Tea Party movement,” Madden said. “I’m not affiliated with the Democrats or the Republicans. I believe in supporting the person who can do the job.”
Morton said the local party is “loosely in contact” with others registered on the Tea Party Patriots website, but has its own agenda: to inspire, inform and influence.
To that end, there is a major focus on educating voters and developing an action plan on issues ranging from term limits to illegal immigration.
“It’s not just signs and slogans. It’s being involved in the process and getting results,” Morton said. “We’re about accomplishing things, and the Tea Party folks — I promise you — vote.”
Some meetings draw hundred
Many of the North Georgia voters who embraced the GOP years before the Republican Party took over state government now have a passion for Tea Party politics.
Joyce Barrett, one of the founders of Gilmer County’s Tea Party, said extreme North Georgia seems to be a particular hotbed for the small-government groups. The Pickens County meetings usually draw 200 people, she said, and chapters in Whitfield, Murray, Catoosa and Walker counties are also thriving. This weekend, her group has a giant teapot float at Independence Day parades in Pickens and Gilmer counties.
Doug Grammer, the Republican Party Chair for the 9th Congressional District of North Georgia, said the group is certainly a factor candidates should consider.
“There are some candidates who have reached out to them, and I think wisely so,” Grammer said in Walker County at a fundraiser for Nathan Deal’s gubernatorial campaign. “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.”
Barrett agreed. Last weekend 26 candidates from as far away as Macon and Augusta gathered in Ellijay for a forum hosted by her group.
She said one candidate told her he was trying to hit the Tea Party events because “the Tea Partiers are going to be the voters.”
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.”
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 very 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 the group’s territory is not in the 9th District). Graves’ opponent in the June runoff, former state Sen. Lee Hawkins was not.
Graves benefits from affiliation
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 Hawkins’ spokesman said his candidate was “not really associated with it at all.”
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 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.
Members following issues
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.
Georgia Newspaper Partnership
Reporters from the Rome News-Tribune seven other members of the Georgia Newspaper Partnership fanned out across the state to talk to Tea Party organizers and voters. Contributing newspapers and reporters were:
Rome News-Tribune: Diane Wagner
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Aaron Gould Sheinin
Augusta Chronicle: Susan McCord
Chattanooga Times Free Press: Andy Johns
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer: Alan Riquelmy
Dalton Daily Citizen: Charles Oliver
Macon Telegraph: Rodney Manley
Statesboro Herald: Phil Boyum
The Georgia Newspaper Partnership is made up of 13 daily state newspapers, including the Rome News-Tribune, that are joining forces to deliver comprehensive election coverage during the 2010 elections. The group will share news coverage of candidates and issues around the state.