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Election will be true test of how much momentum the tea party has

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LAWRENCEVILLE -- It's been brewing for about 20 months now, but the real test will be Tuesday to learn how strong the tea party movement is, both in Gwinnett and across the country.

Just months after the election of President Barack Obama and the large majority of Democrats in Congress, people who had stayed home from the polls in 2008 because of disillusionment found a new cause.

First, they began protesting federal stimulus spending. Then they turned to health care reform, but neither could be stopped because of the power in Washington.

Even locally, frustrated people came out to protest a proposed tax hike. They won the first battle, but commissioners later revisited the proposal and raised the millage rate.

This year, tea partiers turned their attention to elections, and they made a huge impact around the nation, defeating several incumbent Republicans and replacing them on November ballots with their own candidates.

"We're motivating people that are new to the process," said Debbie Dooley, a Dacula woman who is a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. "I think we are already having an impact."

While the movement is strong in Gwinnett, University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said the impact may not be felt as much here, where conservative politics have reigned for decades.

In fact, in the GOP primary for the 7th Congressional District, the tea party-favored candidate lost to Rob Woodall, the former chief of staff of incumbent John Linder, who is retiring. Woodall eventually got many tea party groups' support, but only after he received the nomination.

"Those with tea party attributes are likely to vote," in this election, Bullock said. "This may give Republicans an advantage vis a vis Democrats now."

Locally, he noted, "My projection is Gwinnett County will become a Democratic county in the future. The tea party movement may forestall it."

Dooley agrees, adding that she believes Republicans have a shot at a state Senate seat that has been held by a Democrat for years. Plus, she said, the District 2 county commission seat had been trending more toward the left in recent years, and with the departure of incumbent Bert Nasuti, this year's race could have been a turning point.

"This county is a strong Republican county, but the Democrats more and more are gaining ground," she said. "You have a few races in Gwinnett that can make a difference. ... The tea party could be instrumental in making that (commission) seat remain Republican."

In the District 4 Congressional race, Dooley's group is pushing hard for Republican Liz Carter, but incumbent Democrat Hank Johnson said the Democrats can't be discounted.

"The tea partiers think they already have this election won," he said in an e-mail encouraging supporters to vote. "They think we won't show up to vote. They are wrong. We won't give up on progress and we won't abandon President Obama."

On Tuesday, Dooley plans to plant a tea party flag in Washington, and she is hoping that will be symbolic of a sweep across the country.

"I think you'll have a huge turnout," she said. "The tea party is one of the reasons that people are enthused about voting."