Tea party stirring up controversy

LAWRENCEVILLE -- In a conservative community that has been quick to protest health reform and local tax increases, tea party politics is alive and well.

The backing of what could be the nation's biggest political movement in the last decade is a precious commodity in Georgia's 7th Congressional District, where voters will soon pick the replacement for one of the most conservative representatives.

But those endorsements are becoming a source of controversy in the upcoming Republican primary, set for Tuesday.

This week, co-founders of the Walton County Tea Party Patriots released a three-page press statement explaining why GOP frontrunner Clay Cox may not lay claim to the "tea party candidate" moniker.

Cox, a state representative who called himself the "tea party candidate" when he announced his run for the job earlier this year, has the endorsement of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, the most established of the area groups. Earlier this week, he was also given the nod by the Walton/Gwinnett County Patriots.

He said he's proud to bear the honor.

But John Sauers and Patrick Acree of the Walton County Tea Party Patriots said none of the five other organizations in the district have given endorsements. Personally, they back Jody Hice, a former minister and radio host.

"It probably carries some weight," to be backed by tea party groups, Sauers said, but he said his group as a whole decided not to endorse because, "There's three or four legitimate, really fine guys in there that could be good representatives."

He also points out that the Atlanta Tea Party's endorsement came after Cox contributed $2,000 to the group, which Cox calls nonsense, and before the candidate qualifying period had ended.

Debbie Dooley, the Dacula woman who organizes the state and Atlanta parties, also called the accusation insulting, since her group has endorsed candidates who have not donated and has decided not to endorse candidates who have.

"There are strong conservatives running in that race," Dooley said, pointing out that many (Cox, Chuck Efstration, Jef Fincher, Hice, Tom Kirby and Tom Parrott) had signed pledges from the Georgia Tea Party Patriots.

"We based it on the fact that Clay had been active in the tea party movement, and he could win," she said. "If we had endorsed their candidate they would have been happy."

Fincher, who has also been active in the movement and donated to the Atlanta Tea Party, said he was hurt when Cox received the endorsement over him.

"It was a big blow psychologically, but we picked up and carried on," Fincher said.

Now, he believes the groups should wait until after the primaries to get involved.

"It seems to be that it's counter-productive of the tea party to interfere in the primary process," Fincher said. "It's really the voters that need to make those decisions."

Dooley said the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots endorsements packs political muscle, but it also can mean volunteers and campaign donations because of the number of supporters in her group.

At the same time, she said, all of the local organizations have to decide on their own whether to endorse a candidate. And some groups in other parts of the state, she noted, have only cropped up to provide support to a specific person. To combat that, voters need to educate themselves, she said.

With the success of Bob Bennett in Utah and Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Dooley added, the tea party can mean a lot to an election.

"Tea parties are not going to endorse someone who is going to live with the status quo," she said. "(Voters) can count on candidates who are going to be strong, and who are committed to the principles of limited government."