The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Tea party activists have promised for months to mount challenges to incumbent lawmakers they see as squishy on conservative issues and especially on calls for ethics reform. Beginning Wednesday, Georgians will find out whether those promises are fulfilled.
Qualifying for all 234 seats in the General Assembly, a handful of state Supreme Court and Public Service Commission slots, all 14 U.S. House seats and thousands of local offices opens at 9 Wednesday morning and ends at noon Friday. Who will sign on the line that is dotted, pay their money down and mount a campaign?
There could be some surprises, said Debbie Dooley, co-organizer of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, one of the most active critics of many incumbent Republicans.
“You’re going to see a lot of challengers statewide,” Dooley said, although she added that “it’s hard to put a number on it.”
Dooley said a tea party candidate has already announced a challenge to state Sen. Jack Murphy, a Republican from Cumming and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. The movement is also hopeful, she said, to have a serious challenger for state Sen. Don Balfour, a Republican from Snellville and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.
“There will be a lot of candidates that tea party activists have recruited in their counties,” she said.
Dooley said if former state Rep. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn, doesn’t qualify to run against Balfour, she will — reluctantly.
“I don’t really want to because of my job,” said Dooley, an IT specialist. “I just don’t want Balfour to go unopposed.”
Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University and a former GOP consultant, said this week represents a test for the tea party.
“It’s one thing to talk about change and advocate change, but at the end of the day results matter,” Swint said. “If the tea party can effectively challenge candidates, they’re going to find it a lot easier to meet their goals.”
The tea party movement has been gaining power in Georgia for the past several years, but 2012 marks a sort of maturation point. While the movement has been successful in knocking off big names in other states, such as U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., it has yet to claim a big upset in a major Georgia primary. The issues here are largely the same as elsewhere — government spends too much and spends it unwisely and doesn’t mind the store.
In Georgia, ethics reform has become a major mobilization point. Dooley and the tea party have filed an ethics complaint against Balfour, accusing him of improperly claiming reimbursement for travel. He has become a rallying cry for tea party activists.
Qualifying is the usually dry business where candidates file paperwork and pay a fee to the party of their choice. It happens every two years and will determine the names that appear on ballots for the July 31 primary. Qualifying is a function of the parties, not the state, although state laws make certain requirements.
State and federal candidates, including incumbents, will qualify at the Capitol while registration for local races will occur in the counties.
Outside the General Assembly, there are other story lines that could play out this week. Georgia has a new congressional district with two strong Republican candidates already announced. More could qualify this week. In the 12th Congressional District, a handful of candidates are already running for the GOP nomination and the opportunity to challenge incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow.
For Democrats, this week could mark the beginning of a lonely cycle. Already relegated to minority status in the General Assembly, new district maps could shrink their numbers more. The maps, approved by lawmakers in 2011, are expected to strengthen Republican majorities in both the House and Senate and could give the GOP two-thirds majorities in both — enough to adopt proposed constitutional amendments.
House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said he won’t make predictions but vowed that Republicans will run hard.
“We’ll be competitive in every corner of the state and intend to pick up every seat we can,” he said.
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, knows the challenge that awaits. She believes the new House maps have 56 solid Democratic seats out of 180. An additional five Democratic incumbents were drawn into districts that lean Republican but should be competitive. Two open seats are also winnable, she said, and two lawmakers who switched to the Republican Party remain vulnerable.
“The maps were drawn to take us below ‘super minority,’ and my task is to stop that if at all possible,” she said. “Gaining seats is not my goal for this cycle. My goal is to maintain our structure and continue to serve the people of Georgia.”
Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said the party could have more options come November if the tea party succeeds in knocking off Republican incumbents in the primaries. Incumbents are much more difficult to defeat.
Said Oliver, “The real conflict and competition between the tea party and what you might call the leadership of the Republican Party will be playing out this fall.”