Jamie Radtke is hoping for her own version of the tea party fairy tale that last year sent Florida Republican Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate.
To win the Virginia GOP nomination next year, Mrs. Radtke would need a comeback similar to that of Mr. Rubio, who closed a 30-point lead by front-runner Gov. Charlie Crist to win the Florida GOP nomination, then the general election.
"No one knew who Marco Rubio was," Mrs. Radtke told The Washington Times last week. "Even though he was [Florida House] speaker, he had virtually no name identification and he was taking on the Republican governor. So we're in a very similar position."
Mrs. Radtke trails considerably in almost ever poll, to be sure. Roughly 67 of GOP primary voters would give the party nomination to former Gov. and Sen. George Allen, compared to 4 percent for Mrs. Radtke, according to a recent survey by Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling. And another poll shows her trailing Democratic candidate Tim Kaine 29 percent to 57 percent in the head-to-head race for Senate seat held by Democrat Sen. Jim Webb, who is retiring after one term.
But the similarities between Mr. Rubio and Mrs. Radtke largely end there, considering that she has never held political office, let alone led a legislative body.
With degrees from Liberty University and the College of William & Mary, Mrs. Radtke professionally entered the political world seven years ago when she took a job as political director for a political action committee that raised money for fiscally conservative Republicans. In 2007, she started a business consulting firm for local campaigns.
When tea party protests ramped up two years later, Mrs. Radtke positioned herself in the middle of it all. As president of the Richmond Tea Party, and later as chairwoman of a loosely connected affiliation of tea party groups across the state, she quickly became the movement's most vocal spokeswoman in Virginia.
Then, last December, Mrs. Radtke decided to test her tea party creds with a run for Senate.
The Chesterfield County resident and mother of three knows she faces an uphill battle against GOP giant Mr. Allen, who also dwarfs her in fundraising, taking in $1.5 million in the first quarter compared to her $150,000.
Her low polling numbers largely indicate voters don't know who she is. Nearly 80 percent of respondents in the Public Policy poll and a recent Washington Post poll said they had no opinion of her. Unfazed, Mrs. Radtke said she expects her name recognition to remain low until the last few months before the primary.
"We're taking on an individual who's been a senator, a governor," she said. "He's been a politician for literally three decades. That's why I got in as early as I did."
Like other tea party activists running for office, Mrs. Radtke talks about the evils of activist government and advocates for eliminating federal agencies such the departments of Education and Energy. And like any newcomer, she hopes the narrative of the fresh-faced novice vs. the entrenched politician will pay off.
"We have to stop defining experience as someone who's been a politician for 20 years and start defining experience as somebody who's been in the real world," Mrs. Radtke said.
Indeed, she's digging as many political liabilities out of Mr. Allen's six-year Senate record as she can find and firing them at him at a rapid rate. She sends out emails titled "This Week in George Allen History" that highlight an action she thinks may reflect poorly on him - adding earmarks to the budget and voting to raise the debt limit, for instance.
The conventional political wisdom is that the underdog benefits by criticizing the opponent, while running a negative campaign can hurt the front-runner. But Democratic Party strategist Paul Goldman said Mrs. Radtke's favorability rating is so low that she should focus on convincing voters that she is qualified for the job instead of constantly blasting Mr. Allen.
"She ought to be going around and establishing her credentials," Mr. Goldman said. "Why couldn't anybody get up and say what she says?"
Mr. Allen, who is viewed positively by a solid chunk of GOP voters, is too popular for Mrs. Radtke to destroy with attacks, Mr. Goldman said.
"If you start saying things about someone people like, they're going to turn against you," Mr. Goldman added.
But Mrs. Radtke is depending on what she sees as a lack of enthusiasm for George Allen among Republican voters who are sympathetic to tea party values.
He's running in "shades of gray," while voters are looking for a candidate with "bold colors," she said.
"We've done internal polling, so we know people are looking for an alternative," she said. "The challenge and the goal for us is to let people know there is an alternative."
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