Republican Senate candidate Ed Gillespie and congressional candidate Barbara Comstock’s efforts to attract independent voters without alienating tea party activists have landed them in a sticky situation.

Both candidates were scheduled to attend a public meeting of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Tea Party on Thursday, but after organizers heard the gathering could be infiltrated by Democrats, they moved it to a private location that one activist said would keep out the “liberal press” and “unfriendlies.” When word of the change got out, the candidates decided a conference call actually would be best.

Democrats pounced, asking what Gillespie would say to tea party supporters that he couldn’t say to reporters. Tea party activists who’d been hoping for some face-to-face contact with the candidates weren’t happy, either.

“I’m disappointed,” David Sparkman, chairman of the tea party group, said in a phone interview Thursday. “I wanted to look these politicians in the eye and take their measure.”

The pickle highlights the challenges Gillespie and Comstock face in pleasing the motivated conservative Republicans they need to turn out in droves this fall while appealing to independent voters crucial to winning elections in a changing Virginia.

Gillespie is challenging U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D), and Comstock is running against Democrat John Foust in Northern Virginia’s 10th Congressional District. Like their Democratic counterparts, Gillespie and Comstock have held a mix of public and private meetings with various constituencies.

Gillespie’s spokesman, Paul Logan, said the tea party call Thursday evening was no different.

“Tele-town-halls are easier for people to participate in who couldn’t otherwise make it out to a meeting. We have been holding both in-person and tele-town-hall meetings with voters throughout the campaign,” he said.

Comstock’s spokeswoman, Johanna Persing, said the call would accommodate more voters than a meeting. “It’s sad that the Democrats resort to publicity stunts and attacks rather than address the people of the 10th District about the issues they care about it. These are actions of a losing campaign desperate for attention,” she said.

Virginia’s 10th Congressional District Democratic Committee planned to protest outside Comstock’s campaign headquarters during the call.

“The protesters will demand to know why Comstock is holding the secret closed-door meeting, what she is discussing with the tea party and why she is refusing to open the meeting to the public and press,” spokesman Alex Parker said.

In a statement, the Democratic Party of Virginia suggested that Gillespie had something to hide: “Why is Ed Gillespie so afraid to speak with news reporters in the room? What is really being said behind closed doors in a room full of tea party supporters that can’t be said in front of the media?

Aside from the partisan outcry, Gillespie and Comstock also annoyed the very people they are trying to woo. Sparkman said he supported moving the meeting from their usual public forum to a private venue because he worried about Democrats and reporters listening in on what could have amounted to a strategy session with Gillespie and Comstock.

“We have moved the event to a more private place away from possible trouble with the liberal press and the supporters of the opponents,” he said in a Facebook post first reported by Politico. He added that truly getting to know the candidates would be difficult with “unfriendlies in the room.”

Sparkman said the group plans to invite Democrats Warner and Foust to future meetings.