The Arlington Young Democrats meet regularly in Ballston for beer and nachos, but last week the buzz at Bailey’s Pub and Grill was a little different: For the first time in more than two decades, one of the most solidly blue congressional seats in the country is open.
The field of Democrats who want to replace retiring Rep. James P. Moran Jr. in Virginia’s 8th District is nothing if not eclectic: a half-dozen elected officials, three African Americans, two Latinos, a talk-show host, an openly gay state senator and a car dealer who last was on a ballot 17 years ago.
That leaves Democrats with a rare chance to make a choice about the face they want representing them in Congress — and the direction they want their party to go. But it also makes it harder for a front-runner to emerge. Youth, experience, women’s issues, gay rights: All will be accounted for on the ballot — and all have the potential to splinter the electorate, with no single candidate rising above the field.
At Bailey’s last week, a couple of the candidates showed up, competing with the libations and President Obama’s State of the Union address for the attention of some very likely voters eager to choose a candidate who matches their vision for the party.
“A lot’s changed in Arlington since we had an open seat,” said Max Burns, president of the Arlington Young Democrats. “Young people are a growing proportion of the county.”
The Democratic field is expected to include five state lawmakers: Adam P. Ebbin and Charniele L. Herring of Alexandria, Patrick A. Hope and Alfonso H. Lopez of Arlington County, and Mark D. Sickles of Fairfax County. Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille and 2012 candidate Bruce Shuttleworth are also in the race.
Mark Levine, a liberal radio talk-show host, says he is “seriously thinking about” running, former Northern Virginia Urban League president Lavern J. Chatman said she was “testing the waters” and Arlington County Board member J. Walter Tejada said he was “going through a thinking process.”
And then there’s former lieutenant governor Don Beyer, who has jumped into the race with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses.
Beyer has the wealth to outspend his rivals. He was a major fundraiser for Obama — serving as the president’s ambassador to Switzerland from 2009 to 2013 — and was national treasurer to Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, giving him connections to prominent liberal activists and donors.
But at 63, Beyer is one of the oldest candidates in the field. Even with the advantage of name recognition — he owns a car dealership bearing his name — Beyer has been out of the political spotlight for a long time.
“When Don Beyer was last on the ballot, I was in high school,” said Atima Omara, an Arlington resident who heads Young Democrats of America. “So he’ll have to introduce himself to a younger audience. That will be his challenge.”
Like the neighboring 10th District, which will also be open because Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) is retiring, the 8th District is growing fast, with a roaring economy and a huge presence of federal workers. As of November, the unemployment rate was 3.2 percent in Arlington and 4.1 percent in Alexandria — well below the Virginia and national averages.
But the 8th is uniquely liberal among Northern Virginia’s congressional districts; Obama won it with 67 percent of the vote in 2012. It contains significant Latino and African American populations and, despite its overall wealth, includes wide disparities between haves and have-nots.
Burns said the district’s young voters want someone who is “unashamedly progressive” and who could address transportation issues, such as the “Orange Crush” that happens on Metro at rush hours.
Several candidates are making explicit appeals to youths. Hope, 41, is calling for a “new generation of progressive leadership” and emphasizing the need to elect someone who can build years of seniority, the way Moran did.
“This district, more than any other, needs someone who’s willing to put in that time and that effort, because we rely so much on federal funding,” he said.
Younger voters don’t turn out as reliably in midterm races as older residents — the kind who remember when Beyer was on the ballot. But Ebbin suggested that Obama’s popularity may have changed that calculus, as he has motivated more young people to join local Democratic committees and become activists.
“That said, young voters certainly won’t dominate the electorate by any means,” Ebbin said.
An aide to another candidate requested anonymity to put it more bluntly: “The smaller the turnout, the better it is for Don Beyer — no question.”
Sickles, 56, said he couldn’t “promise 24 years like Jim gave, but I think I might be able to make that.”
Beyer, who served two terms as lieutenant governor, hasn’t run for anything since his loss to James S. Gilmore III in the 1997 governor’s race. In a Northern Virginia region where new voters move in every day, 17 years is a long time.
“I certainly can’t make any assumption that anybody remembers that service years ago,” Beyer said in an interview. “I have a reintroduction effort ahead of me, but that’s okay.”
Geography is likely to play a role in the jockeying, too. The 8th District includes Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church and part of Fairfax, and contenders have come out of every corner of the map.
“The challenge there is there are a lot of good candidates, a lot of good elected officials who many people here tonight know,” said Greg Greeley, a candidate for the Arlington County School Board who attended last week’s gathering. “So in some ways people are torn: Do I support this elected I know? This other elected I know? This third elected I know?”
The two hopefuls who came to Tuesday’s event, Hope and Ebbin, have endorsed Greeley, so there’s no way for him to reciprocate without playing favorites.
“We’re going to have a good choice, but it’s going to be a tough choice,” Greeley said.
Nearly all of the candidates interviewed for this article agreed on one thing: They won’t all be on the ballot by the time the primary comes. And most speculated that by March 31, the end of the first-quarter fundraising period, some of the current hopefuls will decide they can’t cut it and bow out.
That could help unclog some geographical logjams. Alexandria, for example, makes up less of the primary electorate than Arlington or Fairfax but appears to have the most candidates, with at least five calling the city home.
Although Beyer will probably have the most money to spend, he said his goal was not to bludgeon anyone with his wealth, especially since all the candidates will be expected to unite after the primary.
“I don’t want to scare anybody out of the race,” Beyer said. “I don’t think I could anyway. I just want to run a good race. . . . Whoever emerges needs to be a healer.”