TIFTON — Tony McBrayer has always had an inkling he might want to run for office someday. But it was the rise of the anti-government tea party movement that convinced the South Georgia businessman to finally put his name on the ballot.
"I felt a calling like I never had before," said McBrayer, now seeking an open seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. He is running as a Republican. Candidates in Georgia must run on a party line and there is no tea party line.
Fired up and fiercely independent, the tea party in Georgia is a giant unknown heading into a frenetic election season where hundreds of races will be on the ballot. Tea party activists estimate that well over 100,000 Georgians are part of their burgeoning movement. There are about 63 Georgia chapters of tea party patriots — believed to be the largest of the tea party groups in the state. Atlanta was the site of one of the largest tea party "tax day" rallies last year and turnout is expected to be high again for a repeat performance April 15.
But will the patchwork of loosely affiliated groups be able to channel all the raw energy of sign-waving rallies into electoral muscle?
They're certainly trying.
Tea party groups are raising money, recruiting candidates and holding seminars to educate their members. They're hosting several debates in the state's hottest race — the 12-person gubernatorial contest
Local groups are distributing questionnaires to candidates to gauge their positions on everything from the Constitution to the debt.
And some tea party organizers — like McBrayer — are seeking office for the first time.
Most of the local tea party groups are remaining neutral in elections, leaving it up to their members to decide. But Atlanta Tea Party
Patriots says they will back candidates in a handful of races. They're staying out of the primary for the governor's race because tea party support is spread thin across the crowded field of candidates.
Congressional races may be where the tea party impact is felt the most keenly. It's where anger after the health care vote seems to be the most intense.
Debbie Dooley, an original national tea party organizer and a co-founder of Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, said the group is looking for candidates — Republican or Democrat — to run against U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a rural Democrat in Southwest Georgia who voted for federal health reform.
Atlanta Tea Party Patriots will also up offer an endorsement in the May 11 special election to replace U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal in North Georgia.
Erick Erickson, a city councilman from Macon and editor of the conservative blog RedState.com, said the tea party ire may rumble through a few races in Georgia.
"But I don't think there will be a wave," he said. "Georgia is more of a purple state than a lot of people think."
Still, Republicans aren't taking any chances.
Party Chairwoman Sue Everhart has been working the tea party circuit. Such outreach has taken the suit-wearing former banker to some unlikely locations, like the Killer Creek Harley Davidson shop in Alpharetta.
"We think they belong with us. We're with them on the issues," Everhart said.
Conservative candidates — mostly Republicans — have been aggressively courting tea party groups aware that the label has cache.
That's made tea party purists protective of their brand.
When Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ray McBerry started labeling himself the tea party candidate in some of his campaign material, tea party activists ordered him to stop, Dooley said.
Nighta Davis, a tea party organizer from Hiawassee, worried Republicans "are trying to hijack us."
"They're trying to undermine us, to infiltrate us ands take over our group," she said. "We're independent and want to remain that way."
In Tifton, tea party activists gather every Monday night at the Holiday Inn. Following a prayer and a few swigs of coffee, about 45 self-described patriots hear a presentation on the pros and cons of banking reform.
"I'm mad as hell," speaker William Byrd tells the crowd. "We send people up to Washington with, pardon my language, no damn common sense."
An orange bucket sits by the door for participants to drop in a few dollars to help pay for use of the conference room. Pocket copies of the Declaration of Independence and T-shirts emblazoned with the image of a Revolutionary War Minuteman are for sale in the bak of the room.
While metro Atlanta tea party groups focus on secular fiscal issues like spending, here in the peanut fields of south Georgia, Christian values top the list of what makes a good tea party candidate.
The regulars here all know one another, and talk of banking quickly turns into a freewheeling discussion of capitalism, immigration and health care. The anti-incumbent mood is high and given the choice between government regulation and Wall Street profit, most everyone in the room sides with pure capitalism.
After the meeting, 60-year-old Darrell Osborne reflects that he is looking for "young, vibrant" candidates who fear God and will adhere to the Constitution.
He frets that the United States "is changing so that I don't recognize it anymore."
"I love this country, that's why I'm here," he said.