SPRINGFIELD, Va. — Swept into office on the pro-Obama wave in 2008, freshman Rep. Gerald Connolly (D) of Virginia is fighting to hold onto his seat against a wave now favoring Republicans.
Two years ago, Democrats ran against the Bush economic record and called for change. Now, they have their own record to defend, and economic indicators are making it a tough sell.
For many Democratic incumbents, the template for the November election is to alarm voters about what could happen if Republicans take back power.
“In my view, Social Security is a sacred contract we made 75 years ago that must be kept,” Representative Connolly told seniors last week at the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield, Va. He was at a cake-cutting event, replicated by Democrats across the United States, to celebrate the signing of the Social Security Act. “I will resist to my last breath any attempt to privatize Social Security … or radically alter it,” he said.
Handicappers for House races count Connolly’s seat in VA-11 as in play, but still favoring Democrats. It’s at the outer limits of the 80 seats that House Republican leaders now see as gettable.
“Virginia-11 isn’t a top opportunity, but it’s a seat that could decide whether the Republicans take the majority or not,” says Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Despite his heavy Boston accent, Connolly has strong ties in this district. As chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (as was his predecessor, seven-term GOP Rep. Tom Davis), he presided over a building and population boom in this D.C. suburban district. He defeated Republican businessman Keith Fimian by 12 percentage points in 2008 by attacking his rival’s record on social issues, saying it was too conservative for a district.
But in a fall rematch, Mr. Fimian and other GOP challengers aim to keep the focus on the economy and the Obama record on spending.
“The concern for Connolly is that this race might have nothing to do with him, but with how people feel about the economy and what the government in Washington is doing to help fix the economy,” Mr. Gonzales says. “Voters are not valuing government experience like they have in other elections.”
House Republican leaders made it a goal this campaign season to recruit entrepreneurs and community leaders with a background outside politics. So far, 78 GOP candidates who have emerged from 2010 primary elections fit that profile.
GOP car dealer Scott Rigell is challenging freshman Glenn Nye (D) in a race in VA-2, now deemed a tossup. Another car dealer, Mike Kelly, is threatening freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D) of Pennsylvania.
As a businessman, Fimian is the template of the GOP challenger. He founded and chairs U.S. Inspect, a national home- and commercial-property inspection service. Aside from his failed run in 2008, he has no previous political experience.
“Experience in politics now is a negative,” says GOP pollster Jim McLaughlin. In the 1994 congressional elections that gave Republicans back control of the House for the first time in 40 years, more than half the GOP candidates had no previous political experience, he adds. “The ideal profile this year is people who aren’t career politicians.”
With no voting record to attack, Democratic incumbents are mining their opponents’ business records for grist for campaign ads. In a special election to fill the seat held by Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, Murtha aide Mark Critz defeated GOP businessman Tim Burns with attacks on the outsourcing of jobs. Republicans are bracing for a similar attack on Fimian’s business record.
“We fully expect Gerry Connolly to attempt to impugn Keith Fimian’s business career and character to shift attention from his failed economic policies,” says Fimian campaign manager Tim Edson. “But given the deteriorating state of the economy, voters are going to side with a successful small businessman who has created jobs and understands how the economy grows over a career politician who has never created jobs and whose votes for more taxes, reckless spending, and more regulations prove he has no clue how to fix the mess he helped create.”
In his freshman term, Connolly voted with House Democratic leaders on nearly all major issues, from economic stimulus and health-care reform to an energy overhaul that includes a tax on carbon emissions. But Connolly says he is opposing the Obama plan to not extend the Bush tax cuts for the highest income brackets.
While most Americans think of wealth when individuals make $200,000 or families $250,000, it’s not unusual in Connolly’s district, packed with two-income professional families and government contractors. “Many people in this district are in that income level, but don’t consider themselves wealthy,” says Connolly campaign spokesman George Burke.
A congressional vote on whether to extend the Bush tax cuts, now set to expire on Dec. 31, is expected to come before the Nov. 2 elections or in a lame-duck session after the midterms.
Republicans are also going after Connolly’s record of bringing earmarks or member-sponsored projects to his district, including requests for more than $3 billion. Once a net plus for politicians, earmarks are emerging as symbols of insider corruption and overspending in the 2010 campaign.
Fimian has called on Connolly to agree to a ban on earmarks. House Republicans have passed a one-year moratorium on earmark requests.
“These Republican candidates have been successful in creating private-sector jobs, and voters are responding positively to them,” says Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which advises and helps finance House GOP races.
But Connolly is counting on his deep roots in the district to help him weather the storm in fall elections. “It’s a little hard for outsiders with no community roots to break the civic bonds that exist with someone that comes from the community,” he says.