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Conservative movement eyes public office

Tea party candidates offer a practice run for 2010

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Year in and year out, municipal elections always gravitate toward the same issues: traffic, taxes, green space, development, schools. They're the kitchen table issues you griped about over dinner last night.

In the race for Charleston City Council's District 12, incumbent Kathleen Wilson was on the same page as other municipal candidates. But her opponent, Craig McLaughlin, made it clear that he was concerned about much broader issues, telling a debate crowd in mid-October that America wasn't a socialist nation ... yet.

The existence of a dedicated voting block focused on limited government isn't a new phenomenon — but it was largely marginalized by the Republican Party until the faith-based and 9/11 wells went dry. With nowhere to hang their hats, the wandering nomads of the GOP have made camp with these staunch conservatives, bringing them fireside while stoking tea party rallies nationwide in April, as well as a march on Washington this summer.

The tea party movement made for a good story — there were plenty of anti-Obama zingers scribbled across cardboard signs to offend or delight the masses. But the question lingering after the signs and bullhorns were packed back in the car was what the next step would be — beyond the usurpation of a girlhood pastime involving stuffed animals and plastic cups.

Some tea partiers have been too focused on voting the bums out, says Ron Parks, local organizer for the Charleston Tea Party.

"We're trying to make people realize there are no empty seats," Parks says. "The only way to get someone voted out is to vote someone in."

The movement has embraced some candidates. Gov. Mark Sanford was an early torchbearer before his secret trip to Argentina. Sen. Jim DeMint continues to speak to these principled conservatives. And gubernatorial candidate Sen. Larry Grooms is emphasizing his conservative credentials in an effort to draw these votes.

And the Tea Party folks are trying to prove their value, getting active in the campaign process by holding signs on street corners and participating as poll watchers.

"The jury is still out on the movement and whether it has permanence," Parks says. "The movement can prove itself by actually producing change."

From Protests to Politicking

But they're not just campaigning for other candidates anymore. Homegrown tea party candidates took a stab at elected office on Nov. 4.

Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and other conservative talk-show hosts pinned large hopes on Doug Hoffman, a Conservative Party candidate and tea partier. The intense pressure from outside of the district led Republican Dede Scozzafava to withdraw from the race days before the election. A success for Hoffman could have expedited the validation Parks and others are looking for, but he failed, losing a traditionally GOP seat to the opposition.

Locally, McLaughlin didn't sound much different from some other municipal candidates when talking about fiscal responsibility and improving pedestrian and bike access. But his campaign was also focused on individual rights and personal responsibility.

The leading issue for the tea party movement has been limited government, but that philosophy goes beyond lower taxes. McLaughlin argued in the campaign that the city's smoking ban in businesses and the recent approval of police cameras on city streets was a violation of peoples' rights.

"I'm all for safety," he told the debate crowd weeks before Election Day. "But at what cost?"

Another example McLaughlin gives is a fresh regulation for mobile storage units like PODS. Voters had approached several council members, concerned about the units taking up space in neighbors' front yards. People didn't even think to approach their neighbor first, McLaughlin says.

"It seems that the first thing that we do is go to government to solve the problem," he says. "We've been told not to solve the problem on our own."

His opponent, Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, who won reelection by nearly 20 percent, accused McLaughlin of trying to superimpose national issues on the local race.

McLaughlin learned on the campaign trail that Wilson wasn't the only one to miss the connection.

"I hear from a lot of people that they want government to leave them alone, 'except for all my local issues'," he says.

When voters couldn't see the correlation between federal overreaching and municipal laws, McLaughlin would equate issues like the smoking ban to property rights. He'd ask whether they would want somebody else telling them what they could do with their land.

"They get that deer-in-headlights look," he says.

Neither Hoffman nor McLaughlin won their respective races. But, in a conference call to supporters late last week, DeMint turned that frown upside down as he looked on to 2010.

"If we got behind just a few candidates, we can make a difference," DeMint said.

Days before the election, McLaughlin recognized the hurdle in challenging an incumbent with his unique campaign message, but he was hopeful about the future of the movement and about providing some inspiration for future candidates.

"It may not be whether I win or not," he said. "It may be about waking up the next person."

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