The tea party is opposed by 53 percent of registered voters in the commonwealth, up a slim three points from last year and up 10 points from a May 2011 Washington Post poll. Just 36 percent support the movement, down from 45 percent two years ago. Among those with the most intense feelings, voters who strongly oppose the tea party now outnumber those who strongly support it by more than 3 to 1.
Independents have soured most dramatically on the tea party: Fifty-five percent oppose the movement, up from 37 percent in May 2011. It’s also opposed by 80 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of Republicans.
Leon Turner, a retired furniture factory worker from Collinsville in southwest Virginia’s Henry County, plans to vote the straight GOP ticket Tuesday. But he’s not a fan of the tea party. “I don’t really like them that much,” said Turner, 74. “I don’t think they’re going to get their way, and I think it will just stir up more problems than it helps.” Turner said that he agrees with the tea party “in theory” on many issues and that he “kind of liked them when they first started out.” But his view has changed, particularly since the fight over funding the health-care law, which led to the 16-day shutdown of the federal government.
“I don’t think they should have went that far,” Turner said.
The shutdown was deeply unpopular, and it hobbled Cuccinelli’s efforts to close the race with McAuliffe. Even 60 percent of avowed supporters of the tea party say they disapproved of the shutdown, although a majority of “strong” tea party backers say they approved of it.
The tea party’s slippage hasn’t stopped Cuccinelli from running a campaign increasingly focused on turning out base Republican voters in the final weeks of an off-year election in which turnout is expected to be low.
Cuccinelli’s increasingly narrow path to victory requires his base to vote in droves while McAuliffe’s stays home. Yet conservatives don’t appear to be winning the enthusiasm battle. While 83 percent of strong tea party supporters say they are certain to vote, 78 percent of strong tea party opponents — a much larger group — say the same.
Cuccinelli campaigned Monday with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a favorite of tea party supporters and Libertarians. (Cuccinelli is also trying to peel support from Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who earns 8 percent of likely voters in the latest poll.)
Cuccinelli appeared at a fundraiser in Richmond in early October with another tea party icon, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), although Cuccinelli ended up trying to distance himself from Cruz because the Texan was a key architect of the GOP strategy on Capitol Hill that helped lead to the shutdown.
Last month, Cuccinelli was at a tea party rally in Sterling with talk show host Mark Levin and spoke at another tea party gathering in Abingdon, also in southwest Virginia.
Rachael Duke, an 18-year-old student at Virginia Tech, is a Republican and a Cuccinelli backer. Like Turner, though, her support does not extend to the tea party.
“They just seem very extreme,” Duke said. “From what I gather . . . they were kind of behind the whole shutdown.”
The rising tide of opposition mirrors a trend across the country. A national Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found 54 percent of all Americans opposing the tea party movement, up 11 points from May and a high across three years of surveys. Strong opponents outnumbered strong supporters by more than 3 to 1.
The polls also show how deeply the tea party movement divided Republicans over the recent federal government shutdown. In Virginia, seven in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who support the tea party say President Obama is mostly responsible for the government shutdown, while non-tea-party Republicans blame Republicans and Obama about equally.
Tea party backers in Virginia continue to like Cuccinelli’s overall direction: 76 percent of movement supporters say they thought the Republican was “about right” ideologically; only 11 percent of tea party opponents say the same.
Washington Post/Abt SRBI poll was conducted by telephone Thursday through Sunday among a random sample of 1,061 registered voters in Virginia, including users of both land-line and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is 4.5 points for the sample of 762 likely voters in the governor’s race.
Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.