The clearest evidence yet of this battle for their soul involves the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has just backed away from pushing “stand your ground” laws like the one involved in the shooting of a young African American in Florida, Trayvon Martin.

ALEC had been a cozy, decades-old group of deep-pocketed corporations and lobbyists that ghostwrote template-style laws for state legislatures around the country to boost the conservative agenda of cutting taxes and government spending and cater to the business community’s desire for fewer regulations. For a long while, it seemed like a gigantic chamber of commerce funded by big corporate names such as Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and Johnson & Johnson.

But as the Tea Party movement gained steam in 2010, its disparate elements pushed right-wing social issues that ended up alienating many and polarized legislatures, including Virginia’s General Assembly. A similar change has occurred at ALEC, which began pushing voter ID laws, which purport to address the nonexistent issue of identity fraud while taking voting power away from minorities, and sucking up to the gun lobby by advocating the idea that if one feels under attack, he or she may whip out a firearm and blow away an assailant without much legal consequence.

Incredibly, Virginia taxpayers have shelled out $231,000 over the past decade so legislators, mostly Republicans, can go to ALEC confabs and learn about the latest in conservative designer legislation. A big player is House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who, according to The Post, made 60 percent of his publicly-funded trips to ALEC meetings.

Then the Trayvon Martin shooting blew everyone’s cover. It had the entire cossetted ALEC world tossed on its head. Firms such as Coca-Cola, Mars, Wendy’s and Kraft, consumer products firms whose billions depend on a positive public image, bailed on ALEC. The deluge of negative coverage was very bad for business. Now ALEC says it is dumping such social issues and sticking to economic ones.

Howell didn’t seem to know what to do. He attacked left-leaning critics such as “ProgressVa” and had the bad taste and judgment to insult Anna Scholl, the head of ProgressVA, at a news conference, by suggesting he needed to speak in monosyllables for her to understand him. Howell, usually more gentlemanly than that, issued a public apology to Scholl.

What’s revealing about Howell’s tantrum, however, is how it shows that mainstream conservatives really don’t know what to do with the social radicals in their movement. For years, they’ve enjoyed the upscale, closed-door demeanor of ALEC meetings until Tea Party types shook everything up. It was fine, everyday work bashing unions and trying to cut taxes for companies and the rich. Yet they were spooked by what ended up being a weak, ephemeral and loosely organized group.

Big business interests figured it out faster and, with the exceptions of firms such as Wal-Mart, many bailed on ALEC. This shows that a lot of the GOP stalwarts in Virginia and nationally have feet of clay. They are not sure of their agenda, as the unimpressive presidential primary has shown. Locally, they let social right-wingers hijack this year’s General Assembly with social issues that were decided decades ago. Real work important to the commonwealth didn’t get done. Because of the distractions, it took four tries to get a (bad) $85 billion budget passed.

It is time to put the Tea Party in its place and get past it. The Republicans are paying a huge price and will probably lose the presidential election if they don’t make this break. Meanwhile, the Democrats, who have stood on the sidelines snickering at the GOP melee, need to get engaged and shut down this social nonsense once and for all.

Recent posts by Peter Galuszka:

Richmond’s Dulles rail roadblocks

McDonnell’s closed-door government

Economic clouds on the horizon for Va.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.