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Tea party intends to keep heat on officials
Movement had success across US; local influence uncertain
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As tea party members cool down after the election season, they know the job isn’t over when their favored politicians take office.

It’s time to hold the candidates accountable.

“We’re very happy with the election,” said Julianne Thompson, state director of the Tea Party Patriots for Georgia. “We wish the Senate would have flipped as well, but the fact that the GOP did win the House back really is going to make us even more engaged.”

At the freshman orientation session in Washington, D.C., last week, tea party organizers made it clear they will continue to push for change. They talked about what legislation they want passed and stopped, including a moratorium on earmarks and an alternative for current health care legislation.

“If any candidate is going to ride the tea party wave, we’re going to hold their feet to the fire and make sure they keep their election promises,” she said. “We want them to know we’re here to work with them and support them, but we expect them to have an open ear to the American citizens and those involved in the tea party movement who worked hard to get them elected.”

The first victory came as tea party members forced GOP members to swear off earmarks that are icons of out-of-control federal spending. Though many Republicans celebrated, others didn’t, especially when it came to their own districts.

In Georgia, the earmark ban could hurt the $551 million dredging of the Port of Savannah, which is worth thousands of new jobs and highly touted by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

“We have no problem with targeted funding, but it needs to go through the proper processes. There’s no reasons why certain spending ventures should not go through the light of exposure with committees and a House floor vote,” Thompson said. “It’s not necessary to do earmarks, especially because they usually result in pork barrel spending.”

Georgia’s Tea Party Patriots, the statewide arm of the national group, also plan more activism at the local and state levels this spring. Since the election, local groups have gathered to draft ethics reforms to slam on the state Capitol steps, which includes the banning of government contracts for the governor, lieutenant governor, legislators and their families. The reforms also ask legislators to report acceptance of lobbyist dollars within five days.

“We’re proud of a lot of the races in Georgia, and we feel like we have a great group of people to work with,” Thompson said. “We’re going to be there at the Capitol during the session, making sure that taxes are cut and spending is cut and lawmakers are addressing some of the problems we’re facing as a state, such as illegal immigration.”

Some political critics are unsure how much Georgia’s Republicans owe to tea party efforts, questioning whether the tea party created the Republican wave or just rode it.

“The easiest campaign to talk about is probably Tom Graves,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “He won many, many elections to fill Nathan Deal’s congressional seat, and it was probably the highest profile tea party contest in Georgia. Republicans had a tremendous success in Georgia, but it’s hard to say the tea party was instrumental in that, other than the Graves race.”

In Georgia, the Tea Party Patriots refrained from making specific endorsements during the election though they had favorites. They didn’t show an interest in promoting their third-party candidates either, and members focused their anger at national politics, not the local scene.

But the influence nationally shouldn’t be taken lightly, Bullock said.

“They didn’t elect everyone closely affiliated with them, but they went away from the election season with results,” he said. “Two years ago, they didn’t even exist and now they’re widely recognized as being out there. I think both Democrats and Republicans consider their success rate to be formidable.”

Tea party members played a large part in getting Republicans to the polls for a midterm election, which usually has a lower rate of voter turnout, he said.

“They got conservatives excited, and a number of polls conducted throughout the campaign season showed Republicans were enthusiastic about going to the polls,” Bullock said.

As the tea party momentum moves forward, Bullock is interested to see how members enforce smaller government, a lower deficit and fewer taxes with concrete ideas.

“As they say, the devil is in the details. They want to spend less, but where do you make the cuts?” he said. “Paying interest on the national debt takes up an awful lot of what’s already committed, and then you’ve got unemployment compensation, Social Security, Medicare and national defense. How will they reduce the deficit unless they make major cuts to popular programs?”