This post has been updated.
A bald man who’s never held elective office looked at the large crowd and TV cameras assembled before him and declared: “My name is Wayne Powell, and I’m really surprised to be here.”
“I’m not a professional politician,” the Democrat added. “You can tell by my haircut.”
Powell was perhaps no more surprised to be participating in a nationally televised congressional debate Monday night than was the well-coiffed, well-oiled politician to his left: Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
While no political newbie — Cantor has held the seat since 2000 — the House majority leader has not debated an opponent in a decade, according to Ray Allen, a senior strategist for Cantor’s campaign.
That Cantor agreed to square off against Powell at all had some politics-watchers buzzing that the congressman might be worried — not that he’d actually lose the race to his vastly underfunded opponent, but that he’d lose enough votes to Powell to look weak.
Which is why, Powell’s campaign suggests, Cantor has lately offered him the ultimate backhanded political compliment: going after his opponent by name.
“He’s rolling big rocks down the hill at us,” said Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a veteran political strategist working with Powell, referring to anti-Powell mailings Cantor has sent around his suburban Richmond district.
Allen conceded that Powell, an Army veteran and lawyer, is Cantor’s most serious opponent since 2002. That’s when he ran against — and debated — “Dukes of Hazzard” star Ben “Cooter” Jones. But Allen placed Powell just a notch above a string of characters who have challenged Cantor since, including a nude group-therapy practitioner who ran against him twice and an “unemployed social worker who followed us around in a chicken suit.”
“He just fundamentally misunderstands his district,” Allen said of Powell. “This is a largely suburban Republican district, and he is offering nothing of interest.”
Powell contends that by taking corporate donations and leading Republican opposition to a budget deal this year, Cantor is the one who’s out of touch with the district. Powell launched a new TV ad this week with an actor playing Cantor, fumbling to find his phone as a constituent calls, only to turn up wads of cash in his pockets.
Throughout their hour-long face-off, Powell played the role of fiery outsider, using two-handed gesticulations and colorful terms such as “pixie-dust politics” to help make his points. He cast himself as someone willing to chart a reasonable course, combining both budget cuts and tax increases on those earning more than $500,000 a year to solve the nation’s fiscal woes.
“Voting for tax cuts in the middle of two wars is simply fiscally irresponsible,” he said. “Two unfunded wars — this is insanity.”
Cantor, by contrast, was the calm, collected insider all hour long. He frequently smiled and looked a little amused by his opponent, as when Powell said, “We have to take care of our own, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen.”
Cantor argued that Powell would hurt economic growth by supporting higher taxes and government expansion, including the the federal health-care overhaul known as “Obamacare.”
“We need to have a forward-looking agenda that is pro-growth,” Cantor said.
Powell acknowledged in the debate that he knew little about Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on coal mining, which have been a big issue in the U.S. Senate and presidential race in Virginia. Cantor suggested that Powell also does not understand the gravity of huge, across-the-board defense cuts looming in January unless a budget deal is worked out.
Powell contended that his 30 years in the Army would tell him where to cut without endangering national security. He said he’d start by reviewing outsourcing, as with the “no-bid contracts to Halliburton.”
“The defense budget is bloated by anybody’s standards,” he said, noting that the comment sounds odd “coming from a colonel.”
Their most biting exchange came when Cantor had the opportunity to ask Powell a question directly. Cantor asked about a promise Powell had made on his campaign Web site: to seek publicly financed campaigns on the very first day he takes office.
“Don’t we have more pressing issues than creating a government welfare program for politicians?” Cantor asked.
Powell shot back: “Compared to the corporate welfare you’re receiving, it’s gotta be better than that. At least it comes from the people.”
Powell went on to suggest that big donations from the pharmaceutical industry had led Cantor to vote against measures that would have allowed the government to save huge sums by negotiating better prices for Medicare drugs.
Cantor and Powell debated at the corporate headquarters of CarMax before an audience of more than 200. Powell supporters complained that the debate, though televised live by C-SPAN2, was not open to the general public. Only chamber members could buy tickets, at $25 a pop.
It was moderated by Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist.