Tea party voters didn’t speak with one voice in Tuesday’s 5th Congressional District Republican primary, leaving the movement’s leaders to ponder its role this fall.
Robert Hurt, a state senator many tea party conservatives scorned for backing a 2004 tax increase, dominated a seven-candidate primary field in the district.
Hurt won with 48.4 percent of the vote, including many voters in his Southside senatorial district who identify themselves with the anti-tax, small-government conservative and libertarian tea party movement. His nearest rival, Jim McKelvey, got 25.8 percent of the vote.
Hurt faces first-term Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello and businessman Jeff Clark running as a conservative independent aiming for tea party votes in November.
Jamie Radtke, head of the Virginia Tea Party Patriots, said the movement is barely over a year old and will better organize itself for future races.
“It shows the strength of the tea party with the number of candidates in that primary who identified themselves with us. But it shows also a need for us to be able to rally around one candidate to be effective,” said Radtke, who is also president of the Richmond Tea Party.
Should tea party voters rally this fall with any unanimity around Clark, that could split the conservative vote and give Perriello a second term with a plurality.
“Jeff Clark has zero name (identification) and very little money, but if people put some real cash behind him, he could get 5 (percent) or 6 percent, and that could be enough to make the difference in this race,” said University of Virginia political science professor Larry J. Sabato, who lives and works in the 5th District.
Conservatives, particularly members of the tea party that arose largely to oppose President Barack Obama’s health reforms and other expansions of federal influence, are spoiling to remove Perriello.
Because of his support of the health care and energy bills, conservatives view Perriello as an Obama stand-in whose defeat in this fall’s midterm elections would be a rebuke not only to the Democratic president but the Democratic-controlled Congress.