In the final days to choose a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, the two finalists are beating their conservative drums as loudly as they possibly can.
Former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal of Gainesville, has, on numerous occasions, called himself the “true conservative” in this race.
Former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who will face off against Deal in Tuesday's runoff election, has the backing of conservative superstars such as Sarah Palin and has touted her ability to shrink the size of her former state department.
But what is a conservative, exactly?
Political experts say both, for the most part, embody two definitions of conservatism — one moral, the other fiscal.
“Nobody would think of either of them as being a liberal or probably even a moderate,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.
In a state as conservative as Georgia, getting elected in a Republican primary is always about planting your stake as far to the right as you can.
But whether the stake is driven on fiscal issues or moral values has differed depending on the election cycle.
In recent election years, leaning to the right has become a game mostly concerned with morals or social conservatism, said Ross Alexander, a political scientist at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega.
Alexander says Ronald Reagan’s presidency and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” brought social issues such as abortion, stem cell research, the death penalty and gay marriage to the forefront of conservative campaigns — especially those in the South.
But traditionally, Alexander said “conservative” was a term used to describe a politician’s fiscal ideals. It’s a definition the current state of the economy has revived.
In the current GOP gubernatorial primary, both candidates have discussed ways they would cut taxes — a conservative card first played by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Frank Harris in 1982 when he promised not to raise Georgians’ taxes.
Harris won and served eight years as governor.
“Up until that point there was often an understanding that you needed to have some investments in infrastructure and improving transportation and improving education, and if you’re going to do that, it’s going to cost some money,” Bullock said.
A new “constitutional conservative” movement that played a major role in Georgia’s 9th U.S. House District race hasn’t been a major decider of conservatives in the state’s gubernatorial race.
Bill Evelyn, founder of the State of Georgia Tea Party, one of a number statewide organizations associated with the movement, said it’s because members of the movement can’t find a candidate.
Evelyn isn’t even voting for a GOP gubernatorial candidate in the runoff. Neither candidate is conservative enough for Evelyn, who defines a candidate’s “conservatism” by both social and fiscal values.
“Neither Nathan Deal or Karen Handel are conservative at all,” said Evelyn, who formed the organization in May.
Evelyn’s organization rates a conservative on three slightly amended constitutional staples: life, liberty and the pursuit of property.
But despite the renewed focus on fiscal conservatism and smaller government, moral issues still carry a lot of weight.
In the last three weeks, Deal has made much of Handel’s stance on abortion, making the issue a major player in the campaign.
Abortion is an issue that has “not a whole lot” to do with the job of Georgia’s governor, Bullock said. But a candidate’s stance on the social issue has a lot to do with the election of governor, Alexander said.
“That is not a major part of what any governor’s going to do, but it does resonate with a component of the electorate,” Bullock said.
Today’s voters — dubbed “values voters” — are more likely to make decisions on moral and religious values than past job performance, Alexander said.
“Most people don’t really perhaps understand what exactly these people do on a daily basis,” Alexander said. “I think people ...have a desire for their elected officials to embody the best of their society’s values or the best of their society’s values as they define them.”
Exit polls from the 2008 presidential primary show that a great number of Republican voters identified themselves as “evangelicals,” Bullock said.
And issues important to the majority of the voters are going to be issues stressed by the candidates, whether it has to do with the actual functioning of government or not, said Alexander.
“That’s part of what drives this effort to establish one’s credentials as being well to the right side on the abortion issue, but generally be thought of as being quite conservative because evangelical voters seem to be quite conservative,” Bullock said.
To be a conservative in Evelyn’s book, a candidate has to be completely against abortion, which, he says, rules out Handel.
Handel has said she is against abortion except in instances of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at stake.
Evelyn calls Deal “a solid pro-life candidate.”
“Being pro-life doesn’t make you a conservative, but you absolutely, positively must be pro-life to be a conservative,” Evelyn said.
But Evelyn’s second test of conservatism, he said, rules out Deal as a true conservative.
Some of Deal’s actions during his 17 years in Congress don’t adhere to Evelyn’s rules of conservatism — namely his support of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A true conservative believes that you must have the authorization from the people who are actually going to be sending their children and their brothers and their husbands to war through an up or down vote in the House, in Congress, to declare war,” Evelyn said. “Well, that never happened. All they did was authorize funding for Bush to prosecute wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — totally unconstitutional, just horrifying ... That is not a conservative standpoint.”
But neither Bullock nor Alexander agrees.
“They’re both quite conservative,” Bullock said.