VIRGINIA BEACH — Jamie Radtke may not yet be well-known to most Virginians, but she was in her element at one event last week.
“I’m especially glad to be in a roomful of terrorists,” Radtke said at a chapter meeting of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, drawing knowing laughter.
“And hobbits!” yelled an audience member, a reference to the Wall Street Journal and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complaining about the demands of the “tea party hobbits.” Later, Radtke sarcastically told the audience: “You, single-handedly, caused the ‘tea party downgrade.’ ”
The folks packed into a meeting room at the Virginia Beach Central Library devoured Radtke’s message, sharing her defiant “us against the world” tone. What’s not clear is whether there are enough voters like them across Virginia to propel Radtke to an upset victory in the race to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D).
Radtke, the former head of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots, is one of five candidates running for the Republican nomination, with former Sen. George Allen the consensus front-runner. The winner on the GOP side is expected to face former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) in one of the most closely watched contests in the country.
Running at Allen from the right, Radtke is seeking to paint the former governor and senator as part of the problem — a professional politician who cast his share of budget-busting votes the last time he was in Washington. Allen has sought to give her as little daylight as possible, campaigning as a devout conservative.
“The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and over again and think, ‘This time it will really be different,’ ” Radtke told the gathering. “That’s equivalent to battered wives’ syndrome.
“. . . I’m so tired of hearing Republicans in the establishment say, ‘But we really need to beat Tim Kaine . . . so we need to back George Allen.’ Excuse me. That kind of thinking got us what we have in Washington, D.C., right now.”
The Senate primary will be held June 12, giving Radtke 10 months to climb into contention for the GOP nod. If the polls are accurate, she has a long way to go.
In a Washington Post poll released in early May, Allen received 57 percent of the vote in a hypothetical seven-way matchup for the GOP nomination. Radtke got 2 percent. A survey released Aug. 2 by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm that conducts polls using automated phone calls, gave Allen 68 percent and Radtke 6 percent in a five-way contest. (The other three declared Republican candidates — Timothy Donner, E.W. Jackson and David McCormick — all polled behind Radtke.)
Spreading a message statewide costs money, and Radtke also trails in that department. As of June 30 she had $46,000 in the bank and $84,000 in debt. Allen had $1.6 million in the bank, having outraised Radtke by better than 10-to-1 in the second quarter of the year.
Radtke likes to spin some numbers of her own. She told the audience last week that there were roughly 50,000 tea party members or sympathizers in Virginia and that if each of them gave her $10 a month she could turn a competitive contest.
“The math works,” she said. “I don’t have to be dollar for dollar with George Allen, but what I do need . . . is your help.”
Small-dollar donations helped propel Barack Obama to victory in 2008, Radtke reminded the resolutely anti-Obama crowd, and they could do the same for her. She also offered some more role models: Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.), Ronald H. Johnson (Wis.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) — all tea-party-backed Republicans who bucked the odds to win Senate seats in 2010.
None of their circumstances quite match Radtke’s.
Johnson faced little primary opposition and spent millions of dollars out of his own pocket in his race. Lee prevailed in the GOP primary over another outsider candidate only after Sen. Robert Bennett was ousted at a Republican convention. And Paul benefited from the name and built-in fundraising power of his famous father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).
Rubio, whom Radtke cites the most often, began his race as a steep underdog against popular Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent. But by August 2009, multiple polls had already put Rubio’s support in the Republican primary well over 20 percent — significantly higher than Radtke’s recent survey results.
“For every underdog who is not supposed to win but wins, there are 10,000 underdogs who don’t win,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. He said that Allen was a “very different” opponent than any of those the 2010 upset winners faced and that Radtke was offering a “very strained narrative” for how she could win.
But Radtke’s audience last week was optimistic about her chances.
“I think it’s very possible” that she could win, said Chris Arney, head of the Virginia Beach Tea Party chapter. “It’s just a true grass-roots effort.”
The key to Radtke’s strategy is to paint a clear contrast with Allen, convincing Republican primary voters that he is simply too liberal.
Earlier this year, Radtke pounced on Allen for refusing to say — despite repeated questions from the media — whether he would have voted for the House Republican budget proposal authored by Ryan. (Radtke supports the plan.)
In April, Allen reluctantly said he backed the short-term spending deal struck by Obama and congressional Republicans, while Radtke opposed it.
More recently, there have been fewer differences. Both Allen and Radtke supported the “cut, cap and balance” approach to cutting the deficit, and both opposed the deal to raise the debt limit, which became law two weeks ago.
In Virginia Beach, tea party members said they could see a clear contrast.
“I don’t think there’s anything about her that’s the same as George Allen,” said Waverly Woods, who owns a local tanning salon.
Jim Cohen, who owns commercial real estate in Virginia Beach, said he had voted for Allen up until he was elected to the Senate in 2000.
“I assumed he would continue as a senator as he was as governor, [but] he was not fiscally conservative,” Cohen said.
Allen has mostly declined to engage Radtke in the primary.
“George Allen is running a strong grass-roots campaign that reaches every corner of the state, focusing on the issues most important to the families of Virginia, like jobs, affordable energy and reining in Washington’s dangerous spending,” Allen spokesman Bill Riggs said when asked to comment on Radtke’s campaign. “He’s continuing to work hard as he prepares for a close, hard-fought election.”
Radtke has purchased a 40-foot recreation vehicle and will be taking her family on a statewide campaign tour in the coming weeks. She knows she needs help to win, so she warned her audience last week that time was of the essence.
“It’s easy to think this campaign’s next year, but guess what, it’s 10 months away,” Radtke said before snapping her fingers, “and it goes by like that.”