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Tea party politics: Is bagging their blessing a boost?
Endorsement of Graves in House race may be first test of movements impact
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2010 Election Guide 

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Election 2010 calendar
April 26-30: Candidate qualifying for state primary
May 11: Special election to fill open seats
June 8: Special election runoff, if needed
June 21: Last day to register to vote in state primary
July 20: State primary
Aug. 10: State primary runoff, if needed
Sept. 21: Special election to fill vacancies
Oct. 4: Last day to register to vote in general election
Nov. 2: General election
Nov. 30: General election runoff, if needed

Amid last week’s nationwide tea party protests, the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots endorsed Republican Tom Graves for the U.S. House, calling him a strong ally of the organization.

Graves, a former state representative, is among seven candidates in the special election to fill the vacant 9th District seat last held by Nathan Deal.

“Rep. Graves has a record of advancing the cause of liberty and the core values of the tea party movement — fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government,” a statement from the party read.

How loudly tea party endorsements will ring this November might first be gauged in the May 11 special election.

“If Graves does not win, then it’s going to be a real damper, I think, at least in the short run on tea party influence,” said University of Georgia Political Scientist Charles Bullock. “If he wins, he won’t win exclusively because of tea party support, but it will magnify their influence, I suspect, in the eyes of a lot of observers and candidates.”

The 9th District seat was left vacant nearly a month ago by Deal, who resigned to focus on his campaign for governor. Graves, a conservative independent and five other Republicans are all vying for Deal’s seat.

And most of the candidates seem to be at least paying attention to the constitutionalist tea party movement, if not pursuing its affections outright.

In a tea party rally Thursday in Atlanta, participants said that more than one year after their movement began, the group is hitting its stride.

“We believe that government is not the solution problems, government is the problem,” Atlanta Tea Party co-founder Debbie Dooley said.

Dooley said the group’s corporate board of four members voted unanimously to endorse Graves, who she said has been involved with the organization since its formation in February 2009. Their criteria is based on which candidates provide the best policies for fiscal responsibility and have a strong conservative background.

She said discussions were held with members in the district who agreed on the endorsement.

“Tom is one of us,” she said, adding that none of the other candidates have been as directly involved with the group. Graves, on the other hand, has helped arrange for donations to buy posters for their rallies.

Meanwhile, similar spinoff groups have formed across the 9th District.

As coordinator of the Four Corners Tea Party in Braselton, Bill Greene said the tea party is about voters who no longer blindly trust candidates — Republican or Democrat — and are fed up with what they see as establishment.

Greene spoke at tea party rallies Thursday in Watkinsville and Atlanta.

“I think what’s happening with the tea party movement is that people have woken up so much to just how big and how intrusive government has gotten under Republicans and Democrats that they no longer take at face value anything that the politicians say,” Greene said.

“The people are now questioning a lot more, I think, intensely, and a lot more in-depth, each of the candidates. And I think that they’re not letting them get away with the same old platitudes.”

He said the Four Corners organization has yet to endorse a candidate in the 9th District race, and he’s not sure it will.

“I’m a very skeptical buyer right now,” he said.

Ernest Housner, an organizer with the Forsyth County Tea Party Patriots, did not let any candidates speak Thursday at the organization’s rally in Cumming.

“I’m not going to let somebody come in and take over our movement,” Housner said.

But he sure did see a lot of them.

Shortly before the rally started Thursday, Housner said he saw Independent Eugene Moon, former state Sen. Lee Hawkins and Blairsville cardiologist Chris Cates, all candidates in the House race.

Candidates have come to Housner seeking support and guidance, he said.

While some of them have not made known a public alliance with tea party groups, most of the candidates in the 9th District race have shown up at tea party events and have repeated the movement’s buzzwords.

One of candidate Bert Loftman’s three campaign slogans is “honor the Constitution.” Moon often rails against government intervention on campaign websites.

Graves, of Ranger, has made no secret of his courting of the tea party movement. He spoke Thursday at the Atlanta rally.

His campaign sent out an e-mail Wednesday, one day before nationwide tea party protests, questioning Hawkins’ conservative ideals.

The e-mail centered on a statement from a Hawkins’ campaign spokesman to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Hawkins was not really associated with the tea party movement. It ended with a question: “Lee Hawkins’ Record … not really associated with the tea party movement and its ideas. Is this the record conservative North Georgia wants in Washington?”

But Hawkins campaign is not removed from the movement. In March, the Gainesville Republican attended an event with the North Georgia 9-12 Patriots, an ally group established by conservative television commentator Glenn Beck.

The North Georgia 9-12 group has promoted bills that allow Georgians to purchase health insurance across state lines, introduce zero-based budgeting and review the effectiveness of various Georgia departments, organizer Tricia Pridemore said.

What these alliances may mean will be determined in a little more than three weeks when voters from the district’s 15 counties take to the polls. Already, nearly 450 of the roughly 395,000 active voters in the district have cast a ballot in early voting.

The results might be a harbinger of things to come in November, and a measure on how powerful the grass-roots tea party movement has become.

“They’re well worth watching,” Bullock said.

Historically, organizations like the tea party are co-opted by one of the major parties, Bullock said. The Populists, the Progressives and the Dixiecrats all disappeared after a few election cycles, though some of their ideals may have lived on, he said.

“That’s what one would expect historically,” Bullock said. “But, occasionally — rarely — you find a movement that comes along that really does have a new idea and forces the party to come to it. Is this going to be one of those rare instances? We don’t know.”

The last time a new party formed sustainably, Bullock said, was in the 1850s. They called themselves Republicans.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.