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Tea party hopes to plant local roots in Virginia for next year's statewide elections

A writer tags along with a Tea Party group from Ohio on their way to Washington to learn what the movement wants -- and why.

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 26, 2010; 12:22 AM

With the November elections behind them, tea party activists are working to solidify their movement by pivoting quickly to state and local issues they think will allow them to show that theirs was not a one-time uprising tied to this year's congressional contest.

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A major focus will be Virginia - one of only four states to hold elections next November. They are also launching a political action committee to recruit, train and fund candidates, and help them drive a legislative agenda during January's General Assembly session.

The groups see the state's legislative contests as an opportunity to build a network of officials who someday can rise through the ranks and compete for statewide offices.

The tea party's record in this year's Virginia congressional races was mixed. Local groups splintered among multiple candidates during GOP nominating contests in June in two congressional districts that were held by Democrats.

But by this month, they had largely rallied around three Republican nominees, state Sen. Robert Hurt (Pittsylvania) and Scott Rigell in Virginia Beach, along with Del. H. Morgan Griffith (Salem). All three defeated incumbent Democrats.

In Northern Virginia, a Republican who ran with tea party help - Oakton businessman Keith Fimian - failed to unseat Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D).

Karen Miner Hurd, founder of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, said she and others now recognize the benefits of experience and creating "a candidate farm club and a bench for conservatives out of the grass roots."

The new strategy represents something of a course correction for a movement that this year often promoted political newcomers.

FreedomWorks, a national tea party group led by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), and other national and local groups are working to ferment and expand their organizations in battleground states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Florida.

For the national groups, assisting activists with local elections helps sustain grass-roots enthusiasm with an eye toward the next round of congressional elections - and the presidential contest - in 2012.

And for the activists, local and state elections are opportunities to nurture candidates who share their political beliefs and to win offices the activists say hold the most influence over people's lives. After all, they say, their movement is built on the premise that power should be concentrated locally instead of in Washington.

"The tea parties are growing momentum every day," said Fran Telarico, a tea party organizer near Fort Collins, Colo., who is helping build a communications network among other local groups in Colorado to look ahead to 2012 as well as local races. "There are more people joining tea parties now than ever."

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