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Clockwise from top left: Radtke shoots from the hip as she courts the conservative base at the Fishersville Gun Show; later, she chats up a potential voter at Regnery’s Ragged Rock Ridge farm, under the watchful eyes of daughter Abigail, 9, and son, Lucas, 5; Radtke’s three children have adjusted to life on the campaign trail, which also includes lots of time with Radtke’s husband and sometimes tour-bus driver, John; Sarah, 8, reads her favorite Junie B. Jones book as she and Lucas kick back.
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Radtke shines in the presence of national-stage conservative stars such as Al Regnery (left), publisher of the American Spectator, and the self-described agent “003” of the national conservative movement, Richard Viguerie (second from left).
A washed-out dirt road in the high wilds of Madison County is no place to test the turn radius of a tour bus, but in Jamie Radtke's uphill race to secure the Republican nomination for Virginia's open U.S. Senate seat, she's willing to try anything once.
Bouncing wildly over potholes from the relative comfort of her campaign bus's plush passenger-side captain's chair, the woman who built her brand as the heart and soul of the Federation of Virginia Tea Party Patriots isn't the least bit concerned that she just might get stuck.
"This isn't about Republican against Democrat," Radtke says, swaying with the road. "This is the establishment against the little guy."
That message had been delivered loud and clear the day before her bus left Richmond. The Associated Press announced that its Dec. 7 candidates debate in Richmond would exclude Radtke, along with another tea party candidate vying for the Republican nomination, the Bishop Earl W. Jackson of Chesapeake. The Associated Press, in its release, indicated it used campaign fundraising success as part of the criteria for determining which candidates to include. That leaves a debate that includes only former U.S. Sen. George Allen and former Gov. Tim Kaine.
As of early October, Allen's camp had raised $3.5 million, compared with Radtke's $370,000.
"It's the height of arrogance," Radtke says frankly, an uncharacteristic seriousness painting her otherwise rosy demeanor. "This is why there's a tea party movement in the first place." She folds her arms resolutely, but her face softens as her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, curls her head in Mom's lap. This campaign — and this big traveling bus with Jamie Radtke's primly smirking visage emblazoned on either side — is a family affair for sure.
Beside her at the wheel is her soft-spoken but supportive husband, John Radtke, a consultant with an IT firm who's stretching his vacation time in support of his wife's cause. Also aboard are son Lucas, 5, and the couple's oldest, 9-year-old Abigail. The kids, already the smart, quick-witted products of a mom-administered home-school education, are less enthusiastic about Mom's new role, but they're no less enthusiastic about Mom.
Before the campaign bus sets off from a Goochland County Wawa store on Broad Street Road, Radtke and Abigail queue up at Wawa with a pair of Diet Cokes and a bag of doughnuts. The store's piped-in music fades from a pop country tune to a possible theme song for her lead-from-behind campaign, which is struggling for donations and for recognition by the frontrunners.
"Ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin' alive," Radtke sings along, dancing in place and laughing with Abigail. The line moves forward and Radtke plops her Cokes and pastries on the counter: "You know it's cheaper if you get six doughnuts instead of four," the clerk says, Abigail tugging lightly at her mom's shirt to reinforce the clerk's sales pitch.
"Fine, get two more," Radtke says, resigned that her order got supersized. "I guess that's the American Way."
Radtke's destination today: the American Spectator Pig Roast and Bluegrass festival, a family-and-friends event held yearly by Al Regnery, publisher of the right-leaning American Spectator magazine, at his family farm, Ragged Rock Ridge. It's her second stop during the dizzying first day of a planned weeklong campaign tour of western Virginia.
Though the crowd is small, the pig roast is an important stop. The event draws a yearly gathering of conservative political voices and thinkers for a day of guns, stogie smoking, a mountain of pulled pork barbecue — oh, and politics.
Radtke, wearing a bright-red button-down shirt with a campaign sticker affixed over her heart and a sidearm holstered on her blue-jeaned hip, is the new kid at this event — a relative unknown aiming to take on the old sheriff in town. George Allen is the former governor and senator who, after nearly 30 years in state politics, is owed political favors by everyone who is anyone in Virginia Republican Party politics. After a period of self-imposed exile, Allen, 59, is preparing to move past his "macaca moment," that disastrous P.R. blunder during his 2006 Senate re-election campaign.
Meanwhile, Radtke's statewide profile (good or bad) remains limited. On paper, her basic politics don't differ much from Allen's: She's a small-government conservative who wants to see tighter controls on federal spending and on federal authority in state and local matters.
Allen's last stint in the U.S. Senate offers pretty solid evidence of his own conservative street cred: He introduced a Constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget and tried to withhold paychecks from his Congressional brethren until passage of a federal budget.
But Radtke, 38, insists she represents a possible alternate future for the GOP, the same party that she's spent the past three years criticizing as an outsider.
While Allen talked about getting things done in Congress, she says, he had his chance and blew it. She and other tea party candidates "are the people who are holding the line on Washington."
"I've always been a Republican," says Radtke, and the Chesterfield resident has a bona fide pedigree to back it up.
A devout Baptist, she's a 1995 graduate of Liberty University, a private Christian college in Lynchburg that's never been shy about its support of religious or conservative political causes.
From there, she interned in Washington, D.C., as a staffer with the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, developing a bond with the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), whose socially and fiscally conservative leanings remain legend.
"That really informed my politics because Jesse Helms was trying to do something you're really not allowed to do politically — which is he was trying to collapse three departments that deal with foreign relations," she says. "He was trying … to put them in the State Department and save money. It was considered radical … I appreciated his ability to sort of be a reformer and his willingness to say no. He was known as Senator No." He was unsuccessful, but the point stuck with Radtke.
For a while during Allen's 1994 to 1998 term as Virginia governor, she even served as office manager for her current rival for the Republican nomination, making her plenty familiar with the inner workings both of Capitol Hill and Capitol Square.
After picking up a master's degree in public policy from the College of William & Mary, she worked as a consultant to the state government, and then the head of the Virginia Conservative Action PAC.
Her first departure from the GOP fold came in 2007, when she formed Sovereign Consulting and made a name running local political campaigns, including those of conservative Henrico School Board member Jim Fiorelli and Chesterfield independent candidate Marleen Durfee. Durfee successfully beat a Republican to take the open Matoaca District seat in 2007.
"They were a little upset with me for that," Radtke admits with her trademark wry smile and sardonic chuckle. Though she says she was a hired gun for Durfee's race, Radtke, who lives in Chesterfield County, recounts an effort by the local GOP to have her membership revoked because she hadn't supported the Republican nominee. They were unsuccessful.
Then came the tea party movement. Already an adept grassroots organizer from her days with the Virginia Conservative Action PAC, Radtke became president of the Richmond Tea Party. She then threw her talents toward organizing the Federation of Virginia Tea Party Patriots, a loose-knit structure that allowed local tea party groups to work as a unified body while maintaining the localized independence that defined the movement.
This confederation enabled the party to have a bigger impact, Radtke says, often coordinating efforts like protests or rallies in different localities.
Soon Radtke became the "It Girl" of the far-right opposition, leading large-scale events, standing as a tenacious voice of rage, channeling "Senator No" as she railed against both Republican and Democratic politics and policies. Her leadership and advocacy gained national notice. A 2010 Wall Street Journal article described the Federation of Virginia Tea Party Patriots as "the most advanced of any in the country."
But just as Chesterfield Republicans took offense to Radtke's success in running Durfee against the party candidate, the statewide party is having trouble accepting its wayward daughter back to the fold.
The Allen camp successfully steered the nominating process toward a primary-election process that forces Radtke to spend more money and travel all over the state.
"There certainly is an unstated order to how things are set to take place," Radtke says, acknowledging the unspoken rules of party politics whereby the popularly chosen nominee tends to be hand-picked by a handful of leaders well before any nominating convention or primary election.
Perhaps that's why Radtke's run has found traction on this rutted Madison County back road where conservative underdogs are better appreciated.
Turning on the rural charm, Radtke blends easily with the folks gathered at Regnery's farm, making her way from group to group of men with expensive haircuts doing their best to seem at ease in flannel and dungarees. She eventually finds her way to a makeshift target-practice area — a pavilion tent over a table set up to hold weapons and ear protection.
"Can you promise you're going to hit it?" asks one observer before Radtke takes her aim at the grouping of targets about 50 feet from the table.
"I don't make any promises I don't keep," she says, a sly smile playing at the corners of her lips.
But there's one target Radtke has no problem promising she'll hit, and it's one that both old-line Republican conservatives and new-line disaffected tea partiers are after with a vengeance.
"People are really furious with the establishment," says 78-year-old Richard Viguerie, a top-level, arch-conservative Republican operative. He sees Radtke's primary-election run against Allen — and possibly against Kaine, the expected Democratic nominee, in the general election next November — as a solid winner.
Clad in a loud red-plaid shirt and flashing a toothy grin that rarely fades, Viguerie says, "This would have been a real difficult battle five years ago," but now the sense of urgency to fix the economy and limit big government has moved Radtke and tea party thinking into the minds of mainstream voters. Then he makes a bold prediction: "The tea party is going to become the Republican Party."
Maybe or maybe not.
"The tea party is not a party — it's a faction of the Republican Party as much as anything else," says Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor at George Mason's University School of Public Policy, who sees the struggle within the Republican Party but not the diametric shift Viguerie has longed for. "They see themselves as the true Republicans and everybody else as a RINO (Republican In Name Only)."
But in fact, says Paul Goldman, a longtime Democratic Party strategist and former head of the Virginia Democratic Party, there is nothing new under the tea party sun.
"This is a group of people — most of them have been conservatives in the Republican Party — this is not a group that's exceptional. Do they have influence? Yes. Will that have an influence on Republicans? Yes. But will they move to the head of the class because you're the new heart of the Republican Party? That's just delusional."
Sure, a Radtke win seems a longshot, acknowledges Daniel Palazzolo, a professor of political science at University of Richmond, but "rather than write her obituary, I think we need to recognize the tea party as a genuine movement in American politics, and I think she represents that … someone who has spent a lot of time and energy trying to bring the tea party's perspective to Republican politics."
While he's not predicting a Radtke win, Palazzolo says instead that Radtke's run is "going to test the extent to which the grass roots can be a force in Republican politics in Virginia. The breadth of the movement: I think that's what's at stake here."
Viguerie says that what many analysts miss when they make odds on Radtke's chances is that this is not a normal election cycle because the nation is in crisis — and crisis has the power to transform public opinion. "Obama and the tea party changed everything," he says, comparing the conservative movement of 50 years ago to a two-legged stool, teetering on the issues of national defense and economic issues. Social issues came along in the '70s, but it is the latest national crisis of political conscience — evident on both sides of the political spectrum — that has brought stability to the party's platform. "Now, with the arrival of the tea party, we're not sitting on a stool. It's a big table," Viguerie says. He adds later, "This may be a time when Americans are so frightened that they're going to make an ideological switch. The tea party will revolutionize national politics." But first Radtke will have to rekindle fires that burned plenty hot in 2010 when tea party-aligned conservative candidates across the nation were swept into Congress. Much of that momentum has since died. The morass of Washington politics seemed all the more a quagmire earlier this year as those same tea party candidates — now congressmen — drove the nation to near-default over the federal debt ceiling. Legislation raising that ceiling eventually passed, but not before the federal credit rating was downgraded and the tea party earned a black eye for obstructionist tactics that increased the public perception of Washington's political ineptitude.
"Holy smokum!" Radtke exclaims as her bus rolls up the long gravel road to the Fishersville Gun Show at the Augusta Expoland, a low-slung brick building that looks less expo and more Moose lodge.
Men and boys with rifles — from World War II-era carbines to modern assault-style semi-automatics — queue up to pass a security guard who officiously attaches zip-ties to each weapon's trigger. These guys are easy picking for a politician on the prowl.
"Hello, my name's Charlie," says the last man in line, anticipating Radtke's coming introduction. "Hello, Charlie," she replies, not missing a beat as she passes him a campaign flier and son Lucas offers a sticker. "I'm Jamie Radtke."
Charlie is a big man with a booming voice, a penchant for guns and a favorite hunter-orange baseball cap emblazoned with a U.Va. logo. But he doesn't know Radtke. In fact, despite three years as a near-constant voice of the Virginia tea party, she's virtually unknown to this crowd.
But her message appeals strongly even if her name draws a blank.
"You've got to get that a--hole out of the White House!" growls one man, his voice rising indignantly. Radtke's response is cool, steering clear of name-calling: "Well, it takes more than a president to screw things up," she says.
"What's your politics?" asks the man.
"Well, I've been involved in the Republican Party for a long time, but I'm a little frustrated with the way things are going in Washington," Radtke replies. He shrugs and takes a sticker.
That shrug would have been a fist pump a year ago, according to Goldman's read on current tea party sentiment.
"They brought new energy into the party for the 2010 election … It was a movement built more on opposition and anger against the establishment. But the tea party took it further by driving the government almost to default to prove a point. Radtke has to realize that's her problem."
Radtke's campaign headquarters is about midway back in a sparsely occupied shopping strip on Midlothian Turnpike. Aside from her parked campaign bus facing the busy main road, the only other indicators of her presence are a few U.S. flags flying on the awning outside her offices.
Inside, calendars and posters bearing the likenesses of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher share wall space with yellow Gadsden flags. Her mom, a resident of Williamsburg, comes up weekly to help out. Her staff is small but dedicated. Her desk in a tiny rear office is tidy.
What brought Radtke to embrace conservative politics was her self-described devotion to the U.S. Constitution.
Her father was an Air Force fighter pilot. She spent her formative years in the early 1980s on a remote NATO airbase in Germany. The Cold War was waged daily there: She recalls nuclear drills and all of the military requirements that were heaped on young military dependents living so near the Soviet Union.
"It had a significant impact on my worldview," she says, adding, "It's a very different thing when you live just a few hours from, uh, communism and you hear the air raid drill and you're thinking, I really hope that's a drill."
She recalls a trip to the free West Berlin, which required a fright-filled drive through East Berlin and the infamous Checkpoint Charlie. "When you saw the difference between East and West Berlin, it was just drastic," she says.
Her return stateside to Virginia in the mid-1980s after three years away from American culture also had a profound effect. "What overwhelmed me when I came back to the U.S. was, just the one word I would say is ‘abundance.' The abundance that we have in America is just remarkable."
It's the desire to protect American abundance that drives her now.
"The conservative movement as a whole is really like the anchor to America being a constitutional republic," she says. "It's really the anchor that's making sure the Constitution is still relevant. … If we lose that anchor, we really are going to drift out into a sea of European socialism."
Radtke's back on the bus, bouncing toward Richmond where the family will stay overnight before resuming their weeklong tour. Between conversations and questions from her road-weary kids, she's consulting her ever-present iPhone, issuing kidding threats that she'll update her Twitter feed with some juicy revelations from the campaign trail.
The candidate is the first to acknowledge that a year is a long time in politics, that the tea party's 2010 momentum has lagged, but she says the doldrums don't indicate what the political landscape will look like in 2012 as the U.S. Senate race heats up.
"I think we were on the defensive," Radtke says of possible missteps by the tea party faithful in responding to negative press during the federal debt ceiling debate. The effort, she says, wasn't to shut the government down, but rather to force it to confront the hard reality that there are consequences for not acting to control spending.
Radtke suggests that the debt ceiling debate was a success, even if the tea party had difficulty controlling the message. "The national dialogue has been focused around things that are important to us. Just because you lose one doesn't mean the movement is falling apart."
Far from it, if Johnny Payne is any indication. He's waiting at the Goochland Wawa as Radtke's bus pulls into the parking lot just as dusk begins to descend.
"Gimme some stickers!" he fairly well yelps as the bus's folding door opens and Radtke descends the hydraulic stairs to the pavement.
"I'm Southern born and Southern bred, and when I die, I'll be Southern dead!" he announces when asked his name. He points to the sign on Radtke's bus identifying her as a candidate for the Republican nomination. But his sympathies aren't with the old-guard party. Payne represents the enthusiastic base of the tea party that Radtke will need to keep energized enough to show up at the primary polls in March of next year. Today is the first he's heard of Jamie Radtke, but he's happy discovering her.
"I'm tea party leaning," Payne says, introducing himself as a hard-working blue collar truck driver who's only now recovering from a bankruptcy and ensuing home foreclosure brought on by medical bills. Despite that, he's got no patience for welfare or proposed tax increases on the rich, which, as he sees it, could possibly erode jobs. "I believe in everybody making as much as they can," he says proudly. "I don't believe in taxing people more just because they make more."
And what of those social programs that might help him?
"They're spending too much money — and at some point it's got to stop," he says.
For today, Payne is all fired up. He points to his decade-old black truck, still in pristine condition despite its age, including its spotless gleaming bumper. "This'll be the first sticker I ever put on it."