October 5, 2010
RICHMOND, Va.—The tea-party movement is turning more professional.
Around the country, tea-party groups are building increasingly sophisticated political organizations and overcoming early bickering to push legislative platforms, elect their own delegates, shake up statehouses and even form alliances with the Republican Party establishment they profess to dislike.
Nowhere is this evolution more vivid than in Virginia, where a federation of more than 30 groups scattered across the state now has the ear of the Republican governor, top state legislators and the state's congressional delegation.
The Federation of Virginia Tea Party Patriots helped push legislation through the Virginia Statehouse earlier this year to blunt the impact of the new federal health-care law. It is now allying with like-minded lawmakers to champion an ambitious roster of bills.
In a show of strength, the group will host a two-day policy convention starting Friday in Richmond that looks set to be the largest state tea-party gathering of its kind to date.
Similar coordinating efforts are underway in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Virginia, Texas and Ohio.
For much of the past year, the meteoric rise of the tea-party movement has struck many as a threat to the Republican establishment. But in state after state, tea-party groups are putting the fireworks aside to form at least temporary alliances with the GOP as they strengthen their own organizations. Many of these groups are already looking beyond the November midterm elections and plotting strategies for legislative sessions and local elections next year.
The result could help determine the tea party's longevity.
"What we are witnessing is a very authentic grass-roots movement," said Ned Ryun, president of Virginia-based American Majority, a group that trains conservative activists and candidates. "But without a lasting fabric, these groups will have trouble keeping the passion alive into the future." Mr. Ryan's group has opened activist-training offices in Texas, Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The success of local tea-party organizations promises to transform the GOP and statehouses, regardless of whether the high-profile candidates who have stolen the headlines so far, such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada, win or lose.
Schisms and tensions still abound, both among tea-party groups and between various tea-party organizations and the GOP. In some contests, tea-party candidates have confounded Republican hopes, notably for Delaware's Senate seat. And the alliances could break down after November's midterm elections. But for now, the emerging picture in many parts of the country is one of pragmatism and cooperation.
These kinds of organizational alliances are likely to boost Republican efforts. Republicans have turned out in far higher numbers than Democrats in primaries across the country, while a Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll last month found that 71% of Republicans saw themselves as tea-party supporters.
In Missouri, activist groups have backed seven-term Republican Rep. Roy Blunt in his bid for the Senate, despite his votes for legislation, including the 2008 bank bailout, which the groups usually abhor.
In Ohio, nearly all of the state's limited-government groups have banded together under the banner of the Ohio Liberty Council, a loose-knit federation of more than 50 groups. The group has formed a political-action committee to actively support candidates, and is pushing initiatives to block the health-care bill in the state and to end the Ohio estate tax.
The council has feuded openly with the state's Republican Party, which pulled out the stops in May to defeat a slate of candidates the council supported for positions on the party's central committee. "The Republicans hate us, just hate us," said Chris Littleton, the council's president.
Still, the group has decided to put the fight aside to support nearly all of the top Republican candidates, including John Kasich for governor and Rob Portman for Senate. The group is also operating phone banks and other get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of half a dozen GOP House candidates.
In Pennsylvania, another statewide tea-party group, the Pennsylvania Coalition for Responsible Government, is backing Republican candidates across the board and has rallied activists to oppose several bills in the state legislature, with mixed results. The group is marshalling support to overhaul the state's budget process and to reduce the amount of time the state legislature is in session.
"At first we focused on Washington, but now we are turning to what is wrong in Pennsylvania," said the coalition's president, Greg Wrightstone. (For the next elections, in 2012, that might include a number of Republican incumbents.)
Virginia's statewide tea-party alliance is perhaps the most advanced of any in the country, both in organization and in its own interactions with the GOP.
Its convention this weekend is expected to draw the cream of the state Republican Party and at least 3,000 participants. The state's top three Republicans—Gov. Bob McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney Gen. Ken Cuccinelli—all agreed to attend and field questions, but as mere panelists, not keynote speakers.
"The party is trying to mollify the tea-party folks, if only as a protective measure," says Mr. Cuccinelli, who rose to office last year with the support of thousands of tea-party activists.
Messrs. McDonnell and Bolling see it differently. "I am going because I am driven, and the tea-party members are driven, by the same ideas," says Mr. McDonnell. Mr. Bolling says his message to the convention will be "that we stand with them and we appreciate their involvement in the political process."
Several events have helped to push Virginia to the vanguard of a national tea-party movement. A huge sales-tax increase in 2004, passed with the help of Republican votes, stirred a rebellion among the party's base and helped propel a new crop of conservatives to power last November, including Messrs. McDonnell, Bolling and Cuccinelli.
The 2009 state election, coming a year after Virginia helped elect President Barack Obama, was an early display of voter angst over Obama administration policies. The election also gave impetus and focus to the dozens of Virginia tea-party groups that sprang up last year.
By early autumn, many were eager to aim higher. "We realized we could stay local but still have more power if we worked together," says Jamie Radtke, a mother of three who has been a driving force behind the statewide organization as head of the Richmond Tea Party.
Meeting last October in the back room of a fishing-tackle shop in Ashland, Va., Ms. Radtke and the heads of a dozen other groups took the first steps to form a statewide tea-party federation. With each of the groups leery of losing its autonomy, they kept the organization loose—formal meetings once a quarter, conference calls once every two weeks.
By December they had a board, a set of leaders, and a mission: to pass legislation against the Obama administration's health-care overhaul, which was then struggling forward in Congress.
The federation found lawmakers to sponsor and move the bill. In January, hundreds of activists converged on Richmond to lobby for it. The bill, which seeks to block the federal mandate that all Virginians must buy health insurance, passed the General Assembly in March, with some support from Democrats.
The federation has had its setbacks and inner struggles. One bill the group pushed, to lift all restrictions on buying firearms made in Virginia, stalled in the General Assembly.
For months, one of its members, the Roanoke Tea Party, pushed for a proposal that would limit the federal government's ability to impose new rules and mandates on Virginia—an issue being taken up by similar groups across the country.
But the Roanoke group wanted the act to include what is known as the right of interposition, a colonial-era doctrine first advanced by James Madison that argues individual states should preserve the power to block any federal law seen as objectionable.
The federation objected, and Attorney Gen. Cuccinelli, in private consultations with the Roanoke group, agreed, noting how Southern states had unsuccessfully invoked the doctrine in the 1960s to resist federal civil-rights legislation.
"Interposition had a place in history, I told them, and it is not an exalted one," Mr. Cuccinelli said.
The federation, which ultimately nixed the interposition doctrine, plans to unveil its legislative agenda for next year at this weekend's convention. Topping the list will be a drive, also underway in a number of other states, to push a constitutional amendment that would allow states to overturn an act of Congress if two-thirds of states vote to oppose it.
The governor and other top Republicans have agreed to support the so-called Repeal Act after a series of back-channel discussions with the tea-party federation. "We very much see eye-to-eye on the issue of federalism," said Mr. McDonnell.
The cooperation came after a bitter primary season. This spring, in the state's sprawling fifth congressional district, five tea-party candidates spent months blasting the Republican favorite, state Sen. Robert Hurt, as a tax-hiking career politician.
The day after Mr. Hurt won the Republican nomination in June, all but one of the vanquished joined Mr. Hurt for a unity rally in Charlottesville. The lone holdout, local businessman Jim McKelvey, issued his own endorsement two months later after Mr. Hurt pledged—in private talks between the two camps—to never vote for a tax hike, to steer clear of all earmarks, and to push for an audit of the Federal Reserve.
Bill Stanley, the Fifth District's new GOP chairman, helped broker the peace. The tea-party movement and the Republican establishment, he said, are essentially following the same tune, "but both sides are not yet dancing the same dance."
At a recent board meeting of the Richmond Tea Party, held in its three-room headquarters in a strip mall west of the city, Ms. Radtke updated the group on a series of private talks they've had with area congressmen.
The most recent sit-down was with Richmond Rep. Eric Cantor, who would serve as Republican majority leader if the GOP wins control of the House next month. Mr. Cantor has reached out to the group, despite declining to join the House's new Tea Party Caucus. "He made clear that we won't always agree, but he supported our aims," Ms. Radtke said.
The congressman also provided the cellphone numbers of his chief of staff and other top aides.
The Richmond group now has a formal five-person board, about 200 organizers and thousands of supporters. The entire assembly is up for re-election next year, and the federation is already working to identify candidates.
"This year, we had little choice but to support the candidates we were dealt," said Ms. Radtke. "In the future we hope to be more selective."