ATLANTA — Last week’s voting brought bad news to tea party and so-called liberty candidates in Georgia, but the question is whether it revealed a turning point in their long-term fortunes or a temporary setback.
The hues of the right side of the political spectrum are varied and include economic/business conservatives, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and small “L” libertarians – “liberty” advocates.
During the primary for the U.S. Senate, tea party leaders picked different candidates to support, mainly Karen Handel and Paul Broun, although Phil Gingrey appealed to them. Both candidates fell short of the runoff in the seven-person race.
Does that illustrate tea party irrelevance? That would be foolish to conclude. If the tea party is irrelevant, why did so many candidates court it?
The runoff contenders, David Perdue and Jack Kingston, ran to the right and will likely continue to in hopes of snagging former supporters of Handel, Broun and Gingrey both in the July voting and in November.
Tea party favorites also met defeat in the nine-way primary for the Republican nomination of state superintendent of schools. Again, it could be argued that the tea party vote was split too many ways because the two making the runoff were both career educators, one for the multi-state Common Core school standards and one against.
In legislative races, tea party leaders learned the limits of their influence. Their No. 1 target was House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. The vote wasn’t close, and has to weaken tea party influence in the legislature.
Other incumbents targeted by the tea party, notably House Education Chairman Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, also survived spirited challenges. Coleman was painted as the boogeyman for watering down legislation that would have ended the state’s adherence to Common Core.
Farther to the right than the tea party are the liberty advocates. They also favor reduced spending and taxes, but additionally they oppose laws that restrict personal freedom.
Their stance drew national attention in this year’s legislative session when one of their group, Rep. Sam Moore, R-Ball Ground, introduced a bill to repeal loitering prohibitions. One effect of his proposal would have been to prevent cops from asking anyone loitering if they had been convicted as a sexual offender.
The bill fit into the liberty agenda of removing all government constraints on peaceable activity, but the furor by sexual-assault victims and their supporters quickly prompted Moore to withdraw the bill. It also led to his primary defeat Tuesday.
Another liberty House member, Rep. Charles Gregory, R-Kennesaw, met the same fate. Both were part of a handful of legislators voting no on dozens and dozens of bills that easily passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities but they deemed contrary to personal liberty.
One lawmaker in that camp fought off a challenger backed by business-friendly groups. Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, once compared hospitals to crack addicts because of their dependence on Medicaid, a remark that offended the hospital lobby. He authored the bill that passed this year to restrict the state’s involvement in advancing the federal Affordable Care Act.
Spencer had the advantage of greater experience that freshmen Moore and Gregory lacked. After being marginalized early in his career, Spencer concluded that to be effective he had to be less combative, and he convinced voters he had changed tactics, if not philosophy.
Will the rest of the tea party and the liberty movement learn Spencer’s lesson or remain so confrontational that they will be forever locked out of true power? That remains to be seen.
If the groups’ power is in question, there is no doubt about their influence. A few defeats won’t make them surrender or disappear.