BOWLING GREEN, Virginia — Four years in the making, Virginia's far-flung tea party groups will officially plant their "Don't Tread on Me" flag not only on the Republican Party but on its nominees for the state's highest offices as well at this weekend's state GOP convention. That's the easy part.
The tough part comes after the convention does its work of nominating tea party hero Ken Cuccinelli for governor and two other conservatives for the lesser offices of lieutenant governor and attorney general.
That's when tea partisans have to persuade establishment Republicans who still control the money but don't call the shots to coalesce behind the activist conservative attorney general and give them a chance against a Democratic ticket headed by Terry McAuliffe, a protege of his party's revered Clinton clan.
"It's this simple: the only thing the tea parties (in Virginia) have ever agreed on is Ken Cuccinelli," said Patricia Evans, a retired registered nurse and tea party activist who describes herself as a communicator for the tea party organization in Danville. "Ken Cuccinelli was tea party before there ever was a tea party."
Just four years ago when the tea party movement was still germinating, no one imagined the movement would take over the state Republican Party machinery. At that time, tea parties were largely still taking structure, more a rebellion against the leftward lurch and perceived overreach of the federal government under newly elected President Barack Obama.
The face of the tea party then was people with conservative or libertarian views who had been uninvolved in organized politics. They began turning up at congressional town hall forums. The yellow Revolutionary War-era flag emblazoned with a coiled serpent and the legend "Don't Tread on Me" became their banner of choice.
It first flexed its muscle 2009 state Republican convention in Richmond, a sleepy affair until the attorney general nomination was to be decided. A roar rocked the Richmond Coliseum and startled journalists looked up from their screens to see yellow serpent flags waving from every corner of the massive sports venue.
Cuccinelli won an easy first-ballot victory over former federal prosecutor John Brownlee and Arlington lawyer Dave Foster. That fall, he was part of a GOP landslide that captured all three top statewide offices over a Democratic ticket.
In 2010, the tea party flexed its muscle in congressional races, aiding H. Morgan Griffith's upset victory over 14-term U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher Virginia's most competitive swing district, southwestern Virginia's "Fightin' 9th" Congressional District.
But beneath everyone's radar, tea party activists in the 84 local groups in Virginia's Tea Party Patriots network became savvy in the Machiavellian art of party politics. They took over local and district GOP units and, over three years, held a majority of seats on the state GOP's ruling central committee by last spring. No sooner had they done it than they convened a special meeting of the committee, rescinded its vote for an open 2013 statewide primary made a year earlier under control of "the Republican establishment" and opted for a closed convention where pro-Cuccinelli conservatives would dominate.
"The tea party controls the apparatus of the party now, but the establishment still controls the money, and that creates a lot of friction," said Radtke, who found out the hard way how much access to political cash means when she unsuccessfully challenged Republican former Sen. George Allen's nomination for his failed bid to win back his old seat last year.
The central committee's convention vote paved Cuccinelli's way to an uncontested nomination after his party rival, two-term Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, saw the hopelessness of defeating Cuccinelli in a convention packed with Cuccinelli's tea party devotees. Bolling withdrew from the Republican race in November.
Bolling ruled out an independent run in March. He recently said he wouldn't attend Cuccinelli's coronation at a convention he considers wrong-headed: "I still consider myself a Republican. We need to be opening the party up and involving more people in the party. A closed convention sends the message that we're not interested in growing our party over time."
One establishment Republican who survived the tea party takeover of the central committee is Wayne "Bubba" Ozmore, a veteran who opposed the convention vote last June. He said it deprived Republicans in the military a chance to be heard on their party's nomination. While Saturday will be a high-water mark for tea party, the new masters of the state GOP have to master another art to win consistently: compromise.
"This weekend is going to be a big ol' beauty pageant with a couple of B-list movie stars," Ozmore said. "I agree with the tea party on a lot of issues, but they've driven a wedge between themselves and the commonsense conservatives they've got to have."
Cuccinelli, he says, has to prove to him and others that he can govern as a pragmatist, not an ideologue. "And if he can reach out not just to the (Republican) base but to independents as well, then we can support him and he can win."
A Cuccinelli victory in November would validate the tea parties, Radke said. A loss sets it back for years. But win or lose, she knows the struggle won't abate.
"Regardless of how the election turns out, there will always be an effort by the establishment to take back the party apparatus," she said. "What we can't be is lackadaisical."
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia politics and government for The Associated Press since 2000.