ATLANTA - Republican Rep. Paul Broun may be known as the conservative firebrand in a crowded race for Georgia's open U.S. Senate seat, but he has yet to cement support among the state's active tea party crowd.
In an increasingly volatile Republican primary, tea partiers remain just as divided as the rest of the GOP electorate. And a big reason is the evolution of the tea party itself, with activists now weighing which conservative candidate stands the best chance of being elected in the fall.
"Electability is now an important factor for us," said Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, one of the largest tea party groups in the country. "We're not just here to wave the flag."
The race in Georgia is one of the most closely watched this year as Republicans make a push to seize control of the Senate. Republicans need to gain six seats to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats and can't afford to lose the Georgia seat. And party insiders have expressed concerns that a weak Republican candidate could open the door for Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, a moderate who represented Georgia for years.
While Broun has earned the backing of the conservative Madison Project and some local tea party groups, his past statements, including one in which he described evolution and the Big Bang Theory as "lies straight from the pit of hell," have drawn scrutiny. Broun and another Republican in the race, Rep. Phil Gingrey, have stoked fears of a repeat of Todd Akin, a 2012 Senate candidate in Missouri who won the primary with conservative support but lost the general election after his comments on abortion and rape.
Tea party activists are unlikely to voice any criticism of Broun on the issues. His message of small government and individual liberty resonate among tea partiers and libertarians. But Broun, who has lagged in fundraising, could have a tough time rallying establishment support and emerging from a likely runoff. The state primary is May 20 with seven Republicans and four Democrats on the ballot for the Senate seat.
That was a key reason why conservative talk radio host Erick Erickson, who has helped candidates from Marco Rubio in Florida to Ted Cruz in Texas, decided to support former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.
"If I could will someone into the Senate, it'd be Congressman Paul Broun," Erickson wrote on his site, RedState.com. "If Broun is in the runoff, while I'd gladly support him, I think you'd see the establishment pour every penny they have into crushing him. He'd either limp badly out of the runoff or we'd wind up with someone worse."
But Broun's supporters are passionate about his campaign and dismiss any suggestion of weakness. Instead, they point to flaws of the other candidates in the race. One of the front-runners, Rep. Jack Kingston, has earned the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which plays well with the establishment but less so among tea party activists wary of big business.
"They all run very conservative," said Kay Godwin, co-founder of Georgia Conservatives in Action and co-chair of the South Georgia Tea Party. "But when you know the backgrounds and you know all the details of what is behind the scenes, then you can pick out who is the most conservative and who is not. And I know that Paul will do what he says he will do."
Godwin said Handel would be her second choice, but stopped short of discussing the rest of the field. Handel has also trailed in fundraising, instead relying on endorsements from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to boost her campaign.
For Julianne Thompson, co-chair of the Atlanta Tea Party and one of the most high-profile activists in the state, her decision was less about Broun and more about Handel.
"There are a lot of good people in this race," Thompson said. "I do not look at this race as being opposed to the other candidates as much as me being supportive and excited about the candidacy of Karen Handel. Karen Handel is the right person at the right time and is the right candidate to beat Michelle Nunn."
Russo said there aren't "huge differences" among the candidates on important issues. Russo's group, the Tea Party Express, has yet to endorse and is waiting to speak with Kingston and former Dollar General CEO David Perdue, also considered a front-runner, before making a decision.
"In 2010, it was important to take a stand, to say "No, we are not going to vote for someone just because they are a Republican,'" Russo said. "Now our goal is winning elections. It's important to take the gavel away from (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid. That is our number one priority."
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