Ralston’s race is one of several challenges to legislative veterans

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The upcoming Republican primary election has the potential to shake up the GOP leadership in the General Assembly like it hasn’t been shook in a while.

Republican challengers, riding a wave of support from tea party leaders and anti-Common Core activists, are taking on long-established House members across the state, starting with the most powerful member of the lower chamber: Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge).

Ralston, who hasn’t had reelection opposition since 2004, is facing a challenge from Sam Snider, a Gilmer County High School wrestling coach who doesn’t have the financial resources of Ralston but has been campaigning against him since last fall.

Ralston is being confronted with the kinds of criticisms that are usually leveled against longtime incumbents: the opposition says he’s not conservative enough, is too beholden to the capitol crowd, and isn’t paying enough attention to the district.

But Ralston, in fact, has moved noticeably to the right in recent legislative sessions. He cleared the way in 2012 for a House vote on a controversial abortion bill that outlawed the procedure after 20 weeks and in this year’s session, he brought up the “Guns everywhere” bill during the last hour of the session, where the House voted to give it final passage.

On the surface, this looks like a very one-sided campaign.

The latest available disclosure report for Ralston showed he had raised $1.04 million in this election cycle. Ralston, who’s been speaker since 2010, has the solid support of the capitol’s lobbyists as well.

Snider’s fundraising total was considerably lower at $15,669, but he is getting support from such activists as Debbie Dooley of the Tea Party Patriots, real estate millionaire Ray Boyd (who briefly considered running in the 2010 GOP primary for governor) and Phil Neff, the former Whitfield County GOP chairman.

At one recent gathering, Neff generated headlines by calling Ralston’s late father “a snake from the word go,” although Neff later told the Dalton Daily Citizen, “I did not mean for that to reflect upon his personal character. I’m talking from a political standpoint.”

The Snider supporters have also produced a TV attack ad that criticizes the way Ralston, a practicing attorney, handled a case for a client that involved the deaths of two people in a 2005 auto accident.

Ralston fired back with his own TV spot that said, “I was raised on some good, solid conservative values. That’s why I’ve run a positive campaign. Sadly, we’ve seen a bunch of crazy radicals from outside our district talking sleaze and nonsense. You deserve better.”

Ralston has taken Snider’s opposition seriously, meeting his opponent face-to-face in three recent debates in the district. The speaker also arranged for Gov. Nathan Deal to sign the “Guns everywhere” bill in a highly publicized signing ceremony in Ellijay, which is in Ralston’s district.

If Ralston were to lose – and he’s a heavy favorite to prevail in the primary – it would be the most shocking upset of a legislative leader since Democratic Speaker Tom Murphy was ousted by Republican challenger Bill Heath back in 2002.

Ralston is not the only prominent lawmaker who’s being challenged in his own party primary.

Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia), a 16-year House veteran who chairs the Banking Committee, is contending with military veteran Lee Burton in his southeast Georgia district.

Morris felt so threatened by Burton’s candidacy that he sponsored two social issues bills that were adopted by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal: a measure requiring some food stamp applicants to be tested for drugs and a bill authorizing a Ten Commandments monument on the capitol grounds.

In Gwinnett County, Rep. Brooks Coleman (R-Duluth) is feeling the heat from two opponents in his GOP primary race: Jef Fincher and Dahlys Hamilton.

Coleman, a retired educator who has served in the Legislature for 22 years and chairs the House Education Committee, is a supporter of the Common Core school curriculum standards championed by former governor Sonny Perdue. That’s a position that puts him at odds with his more conservative opponents.

Fincher, for example, has referred to the nationwide Common Core standards as “the Obamacare of education.”

Another Gwinnett County veteran with primary opposition is Sen. Don Balfour (R-Snellville), the longest-serving Republican in the state Senate.

Balfour for several years was one of the most powerful senators because of his chairmanship of the Rules Committee, but he lost that plum assignment after he ran into ethics problems that included an indictment by a Fulton County grand jury over the filing of inaccurate state expense reports.

Balfour was acquitted in his Fulton County trial last year, but he has drawn challenges from former county commissioner Mike Beaudreau and P. K. Martin, a Lawrenceville city councilman.

Like Ralston, Balfour has raised some serious money in this election cycle: more than $743,000, according to his most recent disclosure report, compared to $50,000 by Martin and about $9,000 for Beaudreau.

Sen. Jack Murphy (R-Cumming), a 12-year legislative veteran and a Senate committee chairman, nearly lost his primary race two years ago and has strong opposition in this year’s election.

Murphy’s challengers include funeral director Lauren McDonald III (the son of Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald), entrepreneur Michael Williams and businessman Jack Schiff.

In middle Georgia, Rep. Buddy Harden (R-Cordele) has primary opposition from Randy Head, a Hawkinsville business owner. Harden is a retired pharmacist who drew the ire of environmentalists in the most recent session because he supported a bill that would have affected water rights along the Flint River.

The election battles between the Republican establishment and the tea party faction are a two-way streeet. There are three tea party incumbents, Reps. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine), Charles Gregory (R-Kennesaw) and Sam Moore (R-Ball Ground), who have primary opposition from establishment-backed candidates.

Spencer, a two-term incumbent, is taking on St. Marys City Councilwoman Nancy Stasinis, who has been critical of him for not bringing more economic development to the coastal Georgia district.

Spencer, a House maverick, has voted against bills backed by the House leadership that would provide lucrative tax breaks to developers and business interests. He scored some points with the tea party faction during this year’s session by successfully passing a bill that prohibits state agencies from assisting Georgians to sign up for Obamacare coverage through a health insurance exchange.

Gregory is a first-termer from Cobb County who has generated headlines by trying to remove all restrictions on the ownership and public display of firearms. He criticized the “Guns everywhere” bill because it doesn’t allow college students to carry firearms on campus.

Marietta attorney Bert Reeves is trying to oust Gregory in the Republican primary.

Moore, who won a special election to the Legislature earlier this year, is already unpopular with the House leadership because he sponsored a bill that would have repealed the state’s loitering law and enabled registered sex offenders to have easier access to public schools.

Moore has not one but two opponents in his primary race: school teacher Meagan Biello, who Moore defeated in the special election, and Wes Cantrell, a Woodstock minister.

At least two other first-term House members are being challenged in their party primary.

Rep. John Deffenbaugh (R-Lookout Mountain) is opposed by retiree Robert Goff and software engineer Alan Painter, while Rep. Geoff Duncan (R-Cumming) is taking on attorney Tom Knox, a member of the House for 10 years before running unsuccessfully for insurance commissioner in 2010.

© 2014 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: Brooks Coleman , Charles Gregory , David Ralston , Debbie Dooley , Don Balfour , Greg Morris , Jack Murphy , Jason Spencer , Legislative elections , Ray Boyd , Sam Moore , Sam Snider