Most had no doubt preferred one of Senator Hurt's six primary-election opponents, but Hurt, seen as a moderate, carried the day districtwide. The big question now is whether Hurt has done enough to woo these conservatives, or whether some will vote Nov. 2 for a third candidate with "tea party" credentials – or not vote at all – and cost Hurt enough support to throw the win to the Democratic incumbent.
As the Republicans vie to take over the House, 12 to 20 seats could turn on the strength of third-party candidates, say independent analysts. Most sit to the right of the GOP nominees, and they could give Democrats a surprise 11th-hour assist in key races by fracturing the conservative vote, even a little. In a tight race – like the one in Virginia's Fifth Congressional District – 1 or 2 percent of the vote could tip the outcome.
"A tea party person running as a third-party candidate can make a big difference. They're the rising tide – the political faction that has the greatest amount of motivation and energy," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "There's no question but that the tea party franchise in this election is a very valuable marketing tool, and anybody can lay claim to it and nobody can be denied it. That's what makes things unpredictable."
True, third-party candidates typically have no impact on the outcome – and their support often fades closer to Election Day as voters weigh casting a "wasted" vote. But the tea party is a wild card this year – and some third-party contestants are interested mainly in advocating their reform agendas and may not much care whether Republicans take over the House.
Inside Virginia's Fifth District
Republicans in rural Greene County liked Ross Perot and loved Sarah Palin: The party's last two pig roasts featured a life-size Palin cardboard cutout. In the June primary, many backed tea party candidate Jim McKelvey, who waited nearly two months before supporting Hurt. Hurt had voted in 2004 for a $1.38 billion tax increase – a move many conservatives saw as indefensible.
But Nov. 2 is nearing and, with it, so are prospects that divisions in GOP ranks could send Rep. Tom Perriello (D) back to the House of Representatives, help Nancy Pelosi remain speaker, and allow President Obama's agenda to advance. That, too, is indefensible, some here say.
"If you listen to Obama, you'd think I'm too dumb to know what to do with my own money or to raise my children," said Steve Finan, chairman of the Republican Party in Scottsville, Va., at the Oct. 2 pig roast. "I'd dig up a dead body over Pelosi."
It has also helped that Hurt met with Mr. McKelvey and like-minded activists after the primary, committing to a 12-point plan that includes voting down any tax increase, balancing the federal budget, auditing the Federal Reserve, protecting the unborn from the moment of conception, and cutting or defunding agencies that have no constitutional basis.
"That made everybody feel a lot better about him," said Gary Lowe, treasurer and former chairman of the Greene County Republicans. "People are tired of politics as usual. That's what we're about – true conservatism." Republicans displayed a 4-by-8-foot placard at a local fair that showed Hurt had signed all 12 items.
But there's still a conservative rival on the ballot: independent tea partyer Jeffrey Clark, who says he's getting pressure both from Republicans and tea party groups to exit the race so as not to split the conservative vote. "Some tea parties have become the strong arm of the Republican Party," said Mr. Clark, a property inspector from Danville, Va. "We get a lot of e-mails asking us to drop out, but they all start out the same way: 'We agree with what you stand for, but we don't want to risk [reelecting] Perriello.' "
Clark has barely financed his campaign and is polling at two to four percentage points. But the Perriello-Hurt race is tight: a one-point margin, according to a recent poll, so even a small score for Clark could help the Democrat. Mr. Perriello won in 2008 by 727 votes.
If a third-party candidate might tip the balance in a close election, what's to stop backers of a major-party candidate from ginning one up, in the hope of siphoning off the opposing candidate's votes? Such are the charges in a few races this election cycle, when the tea party brand alone may attract voters who don't look too closely at a specific candidate.
In New Jersey's Third Congressional District, freshman Rep. John Adler (D) is neck and neck with ex-Philadelphia Eagles lineman Jon Runyan (R), 41 percent to 39 percent, respectively, according to a recent Rutgers Eagleton poll. But a self-described tea party candidate who has barely campaigned, Peter DeStefano, is polling at 6 percent among likely voters – enough to tip the race to the Democrat. Republicans and other tea partyers say his campaign is a fake, financed and directed by aides and supporters of Mr. Adler. “As far as I know, we have nothing to do with it," Adler said in a debate on Monday. On Tuesday, the New Jersey Republican State Committee called on the Federal Election Commission to investigate.
"My reason for getting involved is I'm fed up," Mr. DeStefano said in a phone interview, noting he lost his home and picture-framing business during the recession. Responding to allegations that he's a plant, he says: "I'm on the ballot. I'm a lawful candidate. I have every right to pick whatever [party] name I want." He declined to say how he collected signatures to get on the ballot or is financing his campaign: "I'm not going to address that."
Independent Cecilia Iglesias faces similar allegations in California's 47th District. Critics say she is a Republican plant to split the Hispanic vote in a bid to defeat seven-term Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) and elect Van Tran (R), a state assemblyman endorsed by tea partyers.
Districts with third-party wild cards
Virginia's Second District. GOP car dealer Scott Rigell leads freshman Rep. Glenn Nye (D) by six points, but former Virginia Beach GOP chairman Kenny Golden isn't exiting the race. If it's close, the votes Mr. Golden pulls from Mr. Rigell could reelect the Democrats' Mr. Nye. Golden dismisses that concern: “Whatever happened to voting for the right person?” he says.
Michigan's First District. Cardiologist Dan Benishek (R) and state Rep. Gary McDowell (D) are locked in a race that is essentially tied, but "Citizen candidate" Glenn Wilson is polling as much as 12 percent. "The Democrats want me out because I'm going to give the seat to the Republicans. Republicans tell me I'm going to give the seat to Democrats," he says in a phone interview. "I've got news for them. This is the people's seat."
New York's 23rd District. Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman on Oct. 5 bowed out of the race, citing concerns that he would split the conservative vote and reelect the Democratic incumbent. But Mr. Hoffman's name remains on the ballot, and he could yet pull votes.
Pennsylvania’s Seventh District. Former US attorney Pat Meehan (R) is narrowly favored to defeat State Rep. Bryan Lentz (D) for an open seat, but backed out of an Oct. 14 debate because it included independent conservative candidate and tea party activist Jim Schneller, who had help from Lentz supporters to get on the ballot. Mr. Meehan leads by four points, according to the latest poll from Monmouth University Polling Institute. Four percent of likely voters said they support a generic “other candidate.” “Brian Lentz supporters put Schneller on the ballot, but it would be surprising if Meehan still didn’t win,” says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College poll in Lancaster, Penn. “That’s how lethal the environment is for Democrats.”