Dispatches: Northern Virginia's Tea Party Eyes 2011
After wielding influence in 2010, members hope message spreads.
One in a continuing series on the state of the American Dream.
As a national movement, the Tea Party has had wielded power over the debt-ceiling debate and helped propel Michele Bachmann's presidential bid.
At the local level, the Tea Party's function has been mixed: Jamie Radtke's U.S. Senate bid is fueled in part by her Tea Party connections, but the movement came up short trying to give Rep. Gerry Connolly an early exit from Congress last year. Still, the movement is trying to shape public policy.
“I think what you are seeing is a transformation of the Tea Party away from protest action (going) towards legislative and voter action, putting our candidates in place where they can make a difference, and I think our results show that,” said John Jaggers, Northern Virginia Tea Party director of operations.
Most Tea Party members are citizens concerned with keeping their legislators accountable. Tea Party candidates are not career politicians but rather people with backgrounds in business, Jaggers said.
According to the 2010 Pew Center exit polls, 41 percent of the electorate was Tea Party supporters and 86 percent of them voted for Republican House candidates.
Though members lean Republican, the head of the Virginia Democratic Party, Brian Moran, approached the local Tea Party and showed he was “very sensitive to Tea Party issues,” said Daniel Cortez, a Prince William County Tea Party member. Cortez is in the process of reaching out to Moran’s Republican counterpart.
“We are not a part of the Republican Party. We have conservative values. … I will have no problem supporting a Democrat that shows that they have the principles of the Tea Party at heart,” Cortez said. “The Tea Party is a movement. It's an ideology. We are not a political party per se. If we ever become one, I think we are going to fail.”
But the Tea Party will likely have trouble succeeding in Northern Virginia, which has more moderate politics because of its proximity to Washington, D.C., said Stephen Farnsworth, a George Mason University communications professor. The region has lots of federal employees who object to the Tea Party's limited government stances. Keith Fimian's failure in defeating Connolly — in a year when 21 Democrats were unseated — might be a case in point.
Still, Democrat-heavy Arlington County is one stop on former Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's book tour. O'Donnell appears there today.
To Cortez, Connolly's near-defeat sent a signal that the Tea Party was legitimate.
"It's a work in progress," Cortez said. "It's a movement, not a political party. ... It is a movement of passion to go back to Constitutional principles."
As the movement, the Tea Party pushes the Republican Party to the right, and it leaves the Democratic Party unsure of what to do, Farnsworth said.
“Trying to argue that the Tea Party movement is more extreme didn’t generate much support for the Democrats in 2010 but in 2012, that same argument might have more traction,” Farnsworth said.
This year's Virginia elections could be good for the Tea Party, he said, because turnout is likely to be low.
“The Tea Party movement seems to be most effective when the turnout is relatively small, when those frustrated and angry voters are in greater share of the electorates in comparison to the electorates in a presidential election,” Farnsworth said.
The test of the Tea Party’s lasting power will be the 2012 presidential election when more casual voters will turn out to vote, he said.