It happened in Indiana and Texas this year, and in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada in 2010: A tea party-backed candidate upended a party establishment pick for a Republican U.S. Senate nomination.
But such an insurgent statewide campaign hasn’t yet succeeded in Virginia, and it’s not clear when — or if — one will.
A challenge to George Allen in the 2012 Senate GOP primary fizzled out, and tea party lightning does not appear likely to hit in any of the statewide races on the 2013 ballot. Another major contest looms in 2014, when Sen. Mark Warner (D) is up for reelection with an uncertain Republican field to face him.
Is that because the Republican establishment is stronger in Virginia than other states? Is it that the tea party movement is weaker? Or is it, as Jamie Radtke suggests, partly a matter of focus?
Radtke, the former head of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots who came in a distant second to Allen in the Senate primary this summer, believes the movement needs to evolve if it hopes to translate grass-roots enthusiasm into victories at the ballot box in Virginia.
“I think it’s taken a few years for the tea party to flesh out, are we going to be issues based . . . or are we going to get involved in campaigns?” Radtke said in a recent interview.
Unlike some fellow tea party members, Radtke decided to throw her hat in the ring this election cycle. But despite an initial burst of attention, Radtke took 23 percent of the primary vote against Allen, whom she and some other activists argued was insufficiently conservative. (Del. Robert G. Marshall of Prince William and Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson finished behind Radtke.)
“You have this group of consultants and politicians and party hacks that . . . is affectionately called the ‘good old boy network,’ ” Radtke said. “It’s sort of like pawns on the chessboard, moving pieces around. . . . I just think that’s frustrating for grass-roots people.”
David Donis, the former chairman of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, recalled that members of the group were split in the Senate race, with many backing Allen despite Radtke’s close ties to the tea party movement. He said the energy of tea-party activists in the state has not led them to rebel en masse against mainstream Republican candidates.
“People aren’t voting for change,” Donis said. “They say they will. They say they’re fed up, they’re sick of Congress. But then they keep putting the same guys back in.”
Donis and other observers noted that tea party groups have had more success in local elections than in statewide contests.
“The tea party in Virginia, in particular, has its roots in local anti-tax movements,” said Quentin Kidd, the government department chairman at Christopher Newport University. “Those people became the infrastructure of the tea party movement. They were really cause oriented, they weren’t election oriented.”
Things aren’t all bad for the most conservative Virginians. Many of them are strong supporters of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who appears to have the 2013 Republican gubernatorial nod locked up after Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling bowed out of the race.
“I think [Cuccinelli] closely represents the values of the tea party,” said Jerry Conner, a leader of the Franklin County Patriots, a tea party group.
Some Republicans, including Bolling supporters, believe that moving to the right is the last thing the party should do, given that President Obama won Virginia for the second time , and the growth of the suburban and minority voting populations will make the state more moderate in the long term. In many of the states where tea party candidates have secured Republican Senate nominations, Democrats ended up winning the general election.
Radtke was back in the news last month, when Bolling held a news conference after he suspended his gubernatorial campaign. Bolling criticized the state Republican party for switching from a primary to a convention to choose its nominee, a method seen as favoring Cuccinelli.
Radtke was on hand for the news conference, and later wrote to the state party central committee asking that Bolling be punished for his remarks. In her view, Bolling didn’t like that the party was finally inching in the right direction — toward the conservative grass roots.
Cuccinelli may be conservative, but as the sitting attorney general and a former state senator, he is not exactly an insurgent. Conner is optimistic that the tea party movement will eventually be able to put one of its own on a statewide ballot.
“I do believe that a tea party candidate is going to have a recognition problem but I don’t think it’s an insurmountable task,” Conner said.
Conner called the campaign of Radtke, who struggled to become widely known and raise money around the state, “a one-time failure.” Kidd agreed that Radtke’s performance had more to do with those flaws — and Allen’s residual popularity among Republicans — than any structural bias against the tea party.
For her part, Radtke has no plans to mount another campaign — for now.
“I’m certainly open to the idea of running again, but there’s nothing that I’m currently considering,” she said.