Conservative tea party activists in Georgia trampled the notion in Tuesday’s partisan contests that theirs was a movement of cycles gone by–a fad, no longer a force–presaging a brutal conservative blitz for capitol dwellers.
Financially outstripped and organizationally outgunned, they squared off with the state’s most prominent Republican politicians and business advocacy groups in a marquee tax referendum and notched majorities in nine of the state’s twelve regions.
At stake for motorists was a controversial transportation fix underwritten by a regional one-cent sales tax, but for the state’s conservative activists it was a deeply symbolic effort: an admonition to the political class that a reprisal performance was merely a rally away.
Campaign disclosures by the two the factions in the ten-county metro Atlanta region revealed a fundraising disparity rarely seen in competitive politics, and rarer still in the context of the measure’s crushing margin.
Fundraising receipts for the primary group supporting the penny tax had topped $8 million at the end of the most recent fundraising quarter, while tea party antagonists reported little more than $15,000 for the same period. Largely subsidized by local blue chips, advocates for the tax had stockpiled north of $1.1 million in cash on hand for voter contact efforts in the contest’s last week.
But in spite of the multi-million dollar fundraising gulf, opposition to proposal measured six in ten voters in the ten-county metro Atlanta region. The margins were even more severe elsewhere in the state, crossing the 75-percent threshold in one mountain district.
The gravity of the conquest, won at the political and personal expense of the state’s Republican governor and lieutenant governor and capital city’s ascendant Democratic mayor, was not lost on tea party organizers.
“We took on the governor, the lieutenant governor, the mayor, big business and slick political consultants,” Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Atlanta tea party, crowed at an election night party. “It does show we have absolutely not lost clout.”
That’s a frightening proposition for Peach State pols, a deeply entrenched group thought by most southern political handicappers to be insulated from typical displacement.
In 2010, little less than half of 236 members of the state’s incumbent legislative class went unchallenged. And only eight of that bunch lost their bids.
Yet even as tea party activists had almost exclusively campaigned on the gridlock tax, more than a dozen incumbent state lawmakers were routed by primary challengers on Tuesday. Republican incumbents were especially pinched by the returns, felled by limited government conservatives.
Just as primary challengers swarmed the state capitol for ballot qualifying, the collective war chest of incumbents had nearly reached $9 million by the end of March.
That distinct fundraising advantage and the handicaps inherent in incumbency were barely enough to hold the conservative horde at bay, distracted by the vaulted transportation vote.
Toppling an establishment-boosted campaign of equal financial means this cycle bodes poorly for the electoral hopes of incumbents unfortunate to draw the 2014 short straw.
The implication of Tuesday’s tax romp was unmistakable: deep pockets don’t assure victory. But there could have been no better news for these conservative activists eying a hostile take-over of the state, claiming little more to their name than an abundance of shoe leather.
- James Richardson