Demand for the “Don’t Tread on Me” specialty license plate canonizing the tea party’s rallying cry has made the tag one of the most coveted in the state, despite being available for just 20 months.
As of Nov. 30, nearly 21,800 Virginia-registered automobiles sported the plates, which resemble the rattlesnake-emblazoned Revolutionary-era Gadsden Flag, ranking it ninth in popularity among more than 200 state-sanctioned specialty plates, according to state figures.
And the numbers look even better when compared with other, newer license plate styles.
Among specialty tags approved in the past five years, “Don’t Tread on Me” lags behind only the “In God We Trust” national motto plate, visible on roughly 23,500 cars.
Both were legislatively approved in 2011 and went into circulation last year.
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Virginia is one of at least six states that have sanctioned “Don’t Tread on Me” plates. Others are Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.
Several other Virginia specialty plates with political themes are less popular than the plate sporting the limited-government group’s adopted motto. The abortion-rights “Trust Women/Respect Choice” plate, for instance, is on about 1,600 vehicles. Roughly 5,400 cars display the anti-abortion counterpart message, “Choose Life.”
Keith Freeman did not mention politics when he recently asked an employee at a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Norfolk about the “Don’t Tread on Me” license plates he could see on the other side of the counter.
When he was told they were stocked because of their popularity, that reinforced what the Hampton Roads Tea Party chairman already was thinking.
“I’m seeing them everywhere now,” said Freeman, who lives in Virginia Beach and has the license plates on his pickup truck.
Larry Nordvig, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, says he has sets of the plates on both of his cars.
“Most ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ plates have a customized message, such as ‘TPARTY,’ ‘LIBERT’ or a similar patriotic phrase,” he said in an email. “We just ran a promotion last month here at Richmond Tea Party. Any supporter who purchased a DTOM license plate got a free Richmond Tea Party European-style car magnet.
“There are quite a few of these plates in the parking lot at our meetings now. I see them all over town. Notably, I’ve seen several members of law enforcement and the military who have them on their personal vehicles. People from other states comment on my plates and are plainly jealous!”
Folks such as Freeman concede that more tea party plates are in circulation than there are active members of the various local affiliate groups. That appeal is heartening to those in the movement confronting tough questions about its muscle after November election losses by Ken Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson, Republican ticket-mates with tea party backing.
“My theory on this is, people want to feel like they’re doing something, that they’re not happy with the status quo,” said Norfolk’s David Donis, a past Hampton Roads Tea Party chairman.
Choosing a symbolic license plate, he said, “is an easy way for them to express their sentiments.”
The message they bear resonates beyond the tea party core, added David Dwyer, a past chairman of the Hampton Roads Tea Party’s Norfolk chapter:
“It is a symbol of frustration — a symbol of disgust with the government,” said Dwyer, who has the plates on two personal vehicles.
For some, it’s more than that. Warrenton’s Rick Buchanan uses his “Don’t Tread on Me” plate as advertising: his SEE FFC tags direct people to the conservative-minded “Fauquier Free Citizen” online publication, and the plate is sandwiched between bumper stickers on his truck promoting the website.
The message on his wife’s license plate — DDM BRO — tells Big Brother to back off; Buchanan says its translation is “Don’t drone me, Bro.”
Buchanan, the outgoing first vice chairman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation, thinks the plates draw the traditional “taxed enough already” set and others exasperated by what he considers Obama administration scandals that qualify as tyranny.
Despite their proliferation, not everyone who is fed up with the system has affixed the plates to their cars. Freeman said his wife shares his feelings but has declined to display the “gaudy” yellow plates because they’d clash with her wine-colored vehicle.
The fee for specialty plates is $10 — some revenue-sharing tags cost more — on top of the regular registration fee. For a personalized message, tack on another $10. In either case, it’s payable to the state.