Over 2,600 people attended the first Virginia Tea Party convention on Saturday. The theme of the two-day gathering at the Richmond Convention Center was “The Constitution Still Matters.” The convention was addressed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, Reps. Ron Paul (TX) and Steve King (IA), as well as former Senators George Allen (R-VA) and Rick Santorum (R-PA).
Other speakers were former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs and political consultant Dick Morris who predicted a 100 seat gain in the House of Representatives for the GOP. The convention received significant coverage on Fox News which had a broadcast area to interview many of the speakers.
Presidential Straw Poll
In the presidential straw poll, 1560 people voted and the winner was Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) who received 14%. He was followed by Sarah Palin (AK) with 13.5% and Ron Paul who had 12.5%. The other top finishers were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) and Sen. Jim DeMint (SC).
Paul said the real test of the Tea Party’s power will come after the November elections. His speech denounced the drug war “which curtails personal freedoms” as well as the “unconstitutional” war in Afghanistan. Santorum did not do well in the balloting despite his address to the convention. He told the crowd that passage of the 17th amendment which allowed the direct election of U.S. Senators was a mistake. Prior to the 17th amendment he said Washington “was a little town that not many people paid attention to. We made limiting government harder.”
2012 U.S. Senate Race
Former Senator George Allen had many supporters in the convention hall, but he was not able to match the enthusiasm for Cuccinelli. Allen is also a former Governor (1994 – 1998) and Congressman. He served one term in the Senate before being narrowly defeated in a stunning 2006 upset by Jim Webb (D) and is planning a 2012 comeback. Allen was a staunch conservative on Capitol Hill and his ratings from the American Conservative Union were 96% in 2006 and 100% in 2005. Nevertheless he is being denounced by self-described “constitutional conservatives,” and may be challenged for the nomination.
Potential candidates include Cuccinelli and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor. The Washington Post said Cuccinelli yesterday “emerged as a clear favorite.” He was warmly received on Saturday when he spoke of his lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the cap and trade system and what he called “ObamaCare.” Cuccinelli also did not hesitate to criticize the GOP:
I don’t think there’d be a tea party if the Republican Party had been the party of limited government in the first half of this decade. It formed outside the parties and it should stay outside the parties.
Opposition to George Allen
Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, mentioned the opposittion to Allen on the far right:
A lot of mainstream Republicans are very worried that the tea-party movement will become the dominant strain in the Republican Party by 2012 and will nominate a presidential candidate too far to the right to win a general election, and that is a very real danger.
Several veteran Republicans were alarmed by the significant presence of the isolationist libertarians. The Libertarian Campaign for Liberty was a convention sponsor and they organized the participation of many college students who attended at a discounted rate. Raising eyebrows in the exhibit area was the John Birch Society which was one of the vendors.
The most vigorous opposition to Allen yesterday came from members of “Virginians for Constitutional Government.” They heckled Allen’s speech and passed out fliers calling him a “Tea Party FAKE” and “Bush-era SELLOUT.” They said he supported “infringement of our liberties” and “government spying” because of his votes in favor of the Patriot Act. They also took issue with his support for “unconstitutional wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The group is very critical of former President George W. Bush and their preferred Senate candidates appear to be Cuccinelli and social conservative Bob Marshall.
When asked to name politicians they admire, members of Virginians for Constitutional Government spoke of unsuccessful candidates from past years. They mentioned Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, Mark Earley (who was defeated in the 2001 gubernatorial race by Mark Warner) and home schooling advocate Michael Farris. He was defeated for lieutenant governor in 1993. Similar to Earley, Farris was closely identified with the religious right. He lost at the same time other conservatives were easily winning. George Allen was being elected Governor and Jim Gilmore was elected attorney general that year.
Bob Marshall, 66, is the most prominently mentioned political figures by Virginians for Constitutional Government. He has been a member of the House of Delegates for 19 years, and previously served on the staff of the American Life League. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008 when GOP incumbent John Warner retired. He came within 65 votes of defeating former Gov. Jim Gilmore (1997 – 2001) for the GOP nomination at the state convention. Gilmore supports abortion during the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Marshall spent $78,000 compared to his opponents almost $1 million, and he did not endorse Gilmore in the general election. Many other social conservatives also stayed home and the seat was won by Democrat Mark Warner.
Marshall’s Senate candidacy was endorsed by Cuccinelli and then Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO). Marshall describes himself as Virginia’s ‘chief homophobe.’” He is the sponsor of the 2006 Marshall-Newman Amendment which was added to the state constitution. It prohibits same sex marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships. He is against birth control pills and IUDs. He does not accept any exception to abortion including rape and incest. Marshall says he has not made a decision about another run for the Senate and is waiting for his wife’s opinion. “She will tell me,” he said.