The blank stares from potential voters are hardly surprising, given that 110,000 voters in Prince William County will see a 1st District ballot for the first time on Election Day, choosing among Wittman, Adam Cook (D) and G. Gail Parker (Independent Greens). The new voters were in the 10th District, long held by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R), and the 11th District, held by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D).
The new district runs west of Manassas, through Gainesville and Bristow. It then creeps down the eastern shore of the state, through Wittman’s hometown of Montross, ending in Newport News.
Despite the shifted boundary lines, the district is still considered one of the safest for Republicans, who have held it for 35 years. This Nov. 6 contest pits a Republican incumbent who decries a budget deal he helped approve, a Democratic military lawyer who says Congress has lost its way, and a minor-party candidate seeking to increase passenger rail service.
In many voters’ eyes — including Wittman’s chief opponent, Cook — the biggest example of Congress’s inability to solve problems was a deal struck last year meant to grapple with the growing national debt. The deal would mean automatic budget cuts totaling $1.2 trillion, including a reduction in defense spending of $500 billion in January if Congress does not reach a long-term budget compromise.
Wittman said if the cuts are not averted, the district would be among the most affected in the country. Newport News is home to a major shipbuilding industry for the Navy, and Northern Virginia’s economy has held strong largely because of defense and federal spending.
Wittman voted for the deal but said it was “unconscionable” that Congress didn’t stay in session to work out a broader compromise to avoid the cuts. But he is optimistic Congress will reach an agreement after the election.
Cook, a 35-year-old former Air Force JAG lawyer who served in Afghanistan and is in his first race for public office, disagrees with Wittman.
“Yes, you have to raise the debt ceiling, but you don’t have to accept a bad deal,” he said in a recent debate.
Cook, who helped oversee a detention facility in Afghanistan from May to November last year, said he is trained to make difficult choices. “We had to make very critical and potentially life-and-death decisions where we only had one chance,” he said. “If you are dealing with a tough situation in the military, you can’t just turn around and go home. Failure is not an option in that type of environment.”
For her part, Parker, 65, a Fairfax County resident, is focused on expanding passenger rail service as a means to grow the economy and tackle debt issues. (It is not a requirement to live within the district to run for a U.S. House seat, according to the State Board of Elections).
Parker also wants Congress to have more direct oversight over U.S. arms sales. She has been on a ballot for the Independent Greens since 2005 — running for state delegate, Fairfax Board of Supervisors, and the U.S. Senate and House.
She said more rail service could be paid for by using dollars that now subsidize U.S. oil companies. “It would make the quality of life for the folks in District 1 much better,” she said.
Wittman, 53, is a former mayor of the small town of Montross, as well as a former member of the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors and a state agency employee. While he votes with his party most of the time, he points to the Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act as an instance of bipartisanship, among other efforts to work on bay and shipbuilding issues with Democratic colleagues.
Cook acknowledges that he has an uphill battle in a staunchly conservative district, held by a Republican since the late 1970s. He said he has raised about $150,000 — enough to travel the district and try build a grass-roots operation but not enough to advertise.
“That’s the biggest challenge we’re facing — people don’t know who I am and what I stand for,” he said.
Kathleen Kirkley, 64, a Democrat from Gloucester, said her part of the state went red even when other typically conservative sections of the state went blue for the first time during the 2008 presidential election. “It goes so far back . . . they don’t even know why they vote the way they do,” she said of her Republican neighbors.
Lynda Fairman, 51, a Republican, said she thinks Wittman has done what he needs to stand up for the district. “He has always stood up for the military,” she said.