A challenge to George Allen in the 2012 Senate GOP primary fizzled out, and tea party lightning does not appear likely to hit in any of the statewide races on the 2013 ballot. Another major contest looms in 2014, when Sen. Mark Warner (D) is up for reelection with an uncertain Republican field to face him.
Is that because the Republican establishment is stronger in Virginia than other states? Is it that the tea party movement is weaker? Or is it, as Jamie Radtke suggests, partly a matter of focus?
Radtke, the former head of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots who came in a distant second to Allen in the Senate primary this summer, believes the movement needs to evolve if it hopes to translate grass-roots enthusiasm into victories at the ballot box in Virginia.
“I think it’s taken a few years for the tea party to flesh out, are we going to be issues based . . . or are we going to get involved in campaigns?” Radtke said in a recent interview.
Unlike some fellow tea party members, Radtke decided to throw her hat in the ring this election cycle. But despite an initial burst of attention, Radtke took 23 percent of the primary vote against Allen, whom she and some other activists argued was insufficiently conservative. (Del. Robert G. Marshall of Prince William and Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson finished behind Radtke.)
“You have this group of consultants and politicians and party hacks that . . . is affectionately called the ‘good old boy network,’ ” Radtke said. “It’s sort of like pawns on the chessboard, moving pieces around. . . . I just think that’s frustrating for grass-roots people.”
David Donis, the former chairman of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, recalled that members of the group were split in the Senate race, with many backing Allen despite Radtke’s close ties to the tea party movement. He said the energy of tea-party activists in the state has not led them to rebel en masse against mainstream Republican candidates.
“People aren’t voting for change,” Donis said. “They say they will. They say they’re fed up, they’re sick of Congress. But then they keep putting the same guys back in.”
Donis and other observers noted that tea party groups have had more success in local elections than in statewide contests.
“The tea party in Virginia, in particular, has its roots in local anti-tax movements,” said Quentin Kidd, the government department chairman at Christopher Newport University. “Those people became the infrastructure of the tea party movement. They were really cause oriented, they weren’t election oriented.”
Things aren’t all bad for the most conservative Virginians. Many of them are strong supporters of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who appears to have the 2013 Republican gubernatorial nod locked up after Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling bowed out of the race.