The 2014 Republican primary was a rough one for Georgia’s tea partyers.
Yes, they collected the scalp of Don Balfour, the most senior Republican member of the state Senate. The Snellville lawmaker may have been acquitted on expense-padding charges last December, but jurors and voters are two different species of animal.
Moreover, tea partyers are certain to pick up some coveted congressional seats come November.
But the 6-year-old movement finished out of the money in the all-important U.S. Senate race. Three candidates willing to carry the “Don’t Tread on Me” banner – Karen Handel, Phil Gingrey, and Paul Broun – diluted the Earl Grey crowd into irrelevance.
Now tea partyers will have to choose between a former Fortune 500 CEO and the candidate favored by one of their most active enemies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
More important, Georgia tea party leaders also took on House Speaker David Ralston on his north Georgia home turf – and missed. And in missing, created a long-term, implacable foe.
The Georgia example runs parallel to the national scene, where tea partyers continue to demand the ouster of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. In Kentucky, national tea partyers backed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s luckless primary opponent.
In Georgia, Ralston beat his tea-party backed opposition, a local high school wrestling coach, by 65 percent. But the second most powerful figure in state government was forced to walk his mountainous 7th District, spend more than $500,000, and endure attacks on his profession as a defense attorney and on his dead father – who was publicly called “a snake.”
So it was worth asking the House speaker for his opinion of a movement that has turned so fiercely on him.
“You have to draw a distinction between the concerns that gave birth to the tea party movement, and then the individuals who sort of hijacked the movement – and have tried to drive it off the cliff,” Ralston began.
“The concerns about less taxes, a leaner, more efficient government, a government that’s more responsive – those are concerns that are central to conservative Republican beliefs,” the House speaker said. “We share those principles.”
The movement's leaders, Ralston said, are another matter.
He never mentioned the name of Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of Atlanta Tea Party Patriots and one of 22 original members of the national organization. The same Debbie Dooley who rented a cabin in Ralston’s district through Tuesday’s vote.
But that’s who the House speaker meant. “The beauty of the age of the Internet is that you can form a tea party group and call yourself a CEO or chairman or president, and nobody knows how many members you have or followers you have,” Ralston said. “People have abused that platform for their own agenda, and I think you saw that come in its most extreme form up in my district this spring.
“They’re driving people away from a conservative majority here in Georgia,” Ralston said. By conservative majority, did you mean the Republican party? I asked.
“If they continue, I think they could threaten it. Because people – I think they’re just tired of their tactics, they’re tired of their rhetoric. So they no longer serve any useful purpose in the party,” the House speaker continued. “That’s not to say the ideas that gave birth to the movement are any less valid today, but we’re not going to embrace any of these tactics that they’re using.”
Party identity has become a serious issue with Ralston.
In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s vote, Georgia’s largest corporate entities banded together to oppose state lawmakers they considered anti-business. The Georgia Coalition for Job Creation, financed by the likes of Coke, Home Depot, AT&T, and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, ultimately raised more than $400,000 for the effort.
The business group did not participate in Ralston’s 7th District scrum. But among its targets on Tuesday were state Reps. Sam Moore of Ball Ground and Charles Gregory of Kennesaw, both of whom called themselves “liberty” Republicans. Both lost to primary challengers.
Ralston said he was aware of the effort. “I know they had some concerns with at least two members of the Republican caucus – at least, two who called themselves Republicans,” he said.
Do you not think that Gregory and Moore are Republicans? I pressed.
“I’m not sure, frankly,” Ralston replied.
The bright side of a hard-fought campaign is that it requires a lawmaker to reconnect with his district. And in the end, Ralston, who is a stout fellow, was happy that the vote was in May – rather than July, a Georgia primary’s usual spot on the calendar.
It was during his walks that the House speaker said he picked up on a disconnect between his very conservative district and the hot tea party rhetoric that was born in the fear and gloom of the Great Recession.
Ralston said his voters know that they are on the other side of that chasm now. Attitudes have changed. “They’re frankly more optimistic and positive than people give them credit for being,” he said. “These are people that have weathered a very tough time economically. But they’re kind of excited, at least on the state level, of what the future holds.”
I called Dooley to let her know what the speaker thought of her. She did not disappoint. She pointed out that her war with the leader of the House didn’t begin this spring. That, Dooley said, began at the 2012 state GOP convention, when Ralston denounced a tea party push for ethics reform as liberal apostasy.
“By God, we’re not going to be silent at the state level. The tea party is not an arm of the Republican party,” she said.
Dooley also said she would return to Ralston’s district in 2016. “He’s always going to be looking over his shoulder,” the tea party leader said.
Ralston knows this. He may have spent half a million dollars defending his seat this spring. But he’s got another $522,816.30 in the bank.