Virginia tea party activists will soon return to Richmond feeling smarter about how to read legislation, promote their agenda and approach lawmakers. They’ll also have more allies in the House and Senate.

What they won’t have, at least not right away, is complete confidence that things will go better for them in this General Assembly session than last, when they left the capital nearly empty-handed.

“Optimistic?” asked Mark Kevin Lloyd, chairman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation, which claims about 45,000 members statewide. “Quote me as saying I want to be optimistic.”

After learning lessons from their first big foray into Richmond politics and helping a number of like-minded candidates into office in November’s elections, tea party members could justifiably expect to have a banner year. And they just might.

The Senate, which killed all but one tea party bill last session, is no longer in the Democrats’ grip, and the parties are fighting over who has control of the evenly divided chamber.

But activists are only cautiously optimistic, in part because Virginia tea party politics will be tangled up in the other politics of 2012. The legislative session will play out against a backdrop of presidential and U.S. Senate primaries and general elections, not to mention a heated battle for the GOP nomination for governor in 2013.

“This next session will be a key session in the definition of what it means to be a Republican in Virginia,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, an associate professor of communication at George Mason University. “Between the fight for the governor’s nomination and the Republican gains in the legislature, it will be a key year for the Republicans to establish their brand in 2012.

“If the Republican Party moves too aggressively and in too conservative a direction, that could hurt Republican chances for the White House as well as have an impact in the Kaine-Allen race,” he said, referring to former governors and U.S. Senate hopefuls Timothy M. Kaine (D) and George Allen (R), who faces tea party candidate Jamie Radtke in the primary.

“Somebody is going to end up disappointed in 2012,” he said. “Either the tea party isn’t going to get what they want in the session, or the Republican Party isn’t going to get what it wants in November. The real challenge for Republicans in Richmond is to figure out how to thread that needle — not do so much to anger the moderates but not so little as to anger the tea party.”

Those are the kinds of political calculations that tea party members will be watching for. With help from the tea party, Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate in November, resulting in a 20-20 split between Republicans and Democrats. Because a Republican, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, breaks tie votes in the Senate, the GOP has claimed control of the chamber. Democrats plan to challenge his authority to vote on certain matters, so control remains in dispute.

If Bolling gets the chance to cast key tie-breaking votes, tea partyers say they will be watching to see whether he votes their way. Bolling, who heads up former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s Virginia campaign, will face Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, a tea party favorite, in the 2013 GOP primary for governor.

“Bill Bolling, he’s under a microscope,” Lloyd said. “A lot’s riding on this. Lots of people worked very hard. They invested a lot of shoe leather and door knocking and cauliflower ears from being on the phone. Now we’re going to see if we get the results we wanted.”

Bolling isn’t the only Virginia politician under tea party scrutiny. But tea partyers won’t be too focused on liberal Democrats. (“You know what they’re going to do,” Lloyd said. “They’ll tell you that upfront.”) They’ll really be on the lookout for closet moderates who ran as conservative Republicans.

“They’re in our midst,” Lloyd said. “Those Republicans that don’t want to be conservatives are going to be exposed very quickly.”

Tea partyers think they are in a better position to keep watch this time around. The federation has recruited more than 100 volunteers to pore over bills as they’re filed.

They did the same thing last time, but now they’re more experienced. Some of them have attended bill-reader training sessions at the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups.

The party had a 10-bill agenda last session but saw passage of only one piece of legislation, which started the process of adding new private-property protections to the state constitution.

If the federation has plans to bring forth bills of its own this session, it is keeping them close to the vest. For now, activists say they are looking at legislation that has been proposed by others.

That means sifting through about 100 bills that have been filed so far and bracing for the legislative “tsunami” that usually arrives in the first two weeks of January, said Mark Daugherty, who takes over as federation chairman in January.

Tea partyers are looking for bills that will be important to them, either because they are in step with their limited-government principles or an affront to them. Once those bills are identified, the federation will assign bill trackers, who will make sure somebody sits in on any related hearings.

The activists also return to Richmond savvier about how to buttonhole lawmakers. “We learned brevity,” Daugherty said. “A two-line e-mail or 30-second voice mail is much appreciated by the busy lawmakers and their busy personal assistants.”

And they learned to be more strategic about whom they approach.

“You need to get with the guy in your district,” Lloyd said. “If you live at the pointy end of the state and you’re going to see somebody from Tidewater, if they see you, they’re just being nice to you.”