2,000 tea party activists expected to gather in Richmond for Patriot Convention

"Tea party" activists gathered Sunday morning at the Washington Monument for a march and rally to show momentum for their cause leading up to the November elections.
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 7:46 PM

RICHMOND - More than 2,000 tea party activists are expected to descend on Virginia's capital city Friday for a two-day summit thought to be the largest state gathering by the loosely affiliated conservative movement.

The Virginia Tea Party Patriot Convention will eclipse a similar event held in Tennessee in February and will feature a presidential straw poll that convention organizers are billing as the first of its kind to gauge support for 2012 candidates.

The convention features dozens of breakout seminars on topics including social security reform and illegal immigration, speeches by former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), and panel discussions that include Virginia's three statewide-elected Republicans.

It is a sign of the movement's organizational vibrancy in Virginia, where a Richmond-based federation has joined together dozens of small tea party groups that have sprung up across the state over the past two years.

What is less clear is whether the tea party will be able to translate its seminars and speeches into electoral success in Virginia, where independent suburban voters have gone back and forth between political parties in recent election cycles.

"The unique geographical character of the state, being so close to the nation's capital, and the various demographic trends of the state all add up to a very complicated political picture," said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. "Nobody can say definitively that this is a solid red or blue state or how the suburbs will swing or how this all plays out here."

More than 1,000 people who identified themselves as tea party activists held a spirited rally at a historic bell tower on Richmond's Capitol Square in January and then fanned out to lobby lawmakers in support of legislation to make a health-insurance mandate illegal in Virginia. The legislation passed.

Tea party activists also have sought and won chairmanships of several local units of the state Republican Party. And Republican officials and candidates will flock to the convention to curry support from the activists, who they hope will help the party knock off four congressional Democrats in November.

"Virginians are knowledgeable about the foundational principles of our country," said former U.S. senator George Allen (R), explaining the movement's popularity in the state.

Allen will be speaking on a panel Saturday with Virginia Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R), offering Allen a chance to reconnect with the conservative activists who helped propel him to the governor's mansion in 1993. Allen is weighing a 2012 run against U.S. Sen. James Webb (D), who defeated him in 2006.

"Whether people have someone who's been here for 300 years or they've been here for 300 days, it's part of Virginia history and culture," Allen said.

But unlike their counterparts in such states as Delaware, Nevada and Utah, Virginia candidates clearly identified with the tea party have had less success getting on the November ballot.

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