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.
Activists could not unite behind a single candidate in a Republican congressional primary in Virginia's 5th District, where Rep. Tom Perriello (D) has long been targeted by conservatives for defeat in November. Instead, the party nominated state Sen. Robert Hurt (Pittsylvania), the pick of the GOP establishment.
Ron Wilcox, head of the Northern Virginia Tea Party, said the convention shows the movement has learned from its losses in the Republican primary.
"When we didn't get together and act in concert, the result wasn't what we wanted," he said. "We're hoping the convention builds credibility and shows our organizational strength."
Jamie Radtke, chairwoman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation and the convention's lead organizer, said the movement might have done better if it had had more time.
Virginia's primaries were held in June - earlier than in other states such as Delaware, where Christine O'Donnell, who was backed by the tea party, defeated Rep. Mike Castle for the Republican nomination last month.
Radtke said the groups plan to be more active during next year's election for the Virginia legislature. But she also said campaign politics should not be the main thrust of tea party supporters. On Friday, the group will unveil its priorities for the 2010 General Assembly session.
"We will be involved in elections, but we're probably going to have a heavier emphasis on the policy side," Ratdke said.
Other tea party activists said the movement needs to achieve success at the polls or risk being perceived as a flash in the pan.
Todd Rojcewicz, founder of the Powhatan Taxpayers Alliance, a tea party group based near Richmond, said they will be targeting the local Board of Supervisors next year.
"To achieve electoral success is absolutely a measuring stick for us at the local level," he said.
The problem highlights the difficulty in trying to come up with a coherent agenda for a loose-knit collection of groups that prides itself on autonomy.
Convention funding is coming from a series of sponsors, many of them well-known conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation.
Virginia political action committees also have made donations, including a group founded by Jim McKelvey, one of candidates who had challenged Hurt for the Republican congressional nomination in June. Another major donor is Middle Resolution, a state political action committee heavily funded by the founder of a fiberglass installation company in Hanover County.
But Radtke said no one organization has contributed more than $15,000 to the event, which is projected to cost $100,000 to $200,000.
No speakers are being paid for their appearance, she said. Organizers designed the event to break even, with ticket prices kept low at $40. Any money left over, she said, will go to fund events held by the federation.
The organization committee formed as a nonprofit corporation, but it has not registered as a political action committee, meaning it cannot legally make donations to political candidates.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.