Drop in Gas Prices Could Alter The Nature of Two Area Races

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

Falling gas prices across the region could change the tenor of Northern Virginia congressional races in which challengers had pummeled Republican incumbents for months by blaming federal energy policy for $3-a-gallon gas.

In at least two local races, challengers have accused officeholders of doing too little to reduce the nation's dependence on oil and fund research into alternative energy sources. They also have attacked incumbents, accusing them of supporting tax breaks for oil companies.

Those messages appear to have less oomph now because audiences, for the moment content with prices as low as $1.97 a gallon, might have less reason to listen.

No one has criticized higher gas prices more relentlessly than Democrat Judy Feder, the dean of Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute. Feder, 59, is seeking to unseat 13-term Rep. Frank R. Wolf in the 10th District, which sprawls from McLean to Winchester. She has depicted the Republican as too cozy with the oil industry.

"And what about those gas prices?" Feder asked this month at a campaign event at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County. "Yeah, $2.75 looks better than three dollars, but we know that's going up."

Roger McCann, 47, a plumber who drives an hour from Orange to Gainesville for work each day, was tickled when at least a half-dozen gas stations along his commute briefly dropped their price for gas below $2 a gallon this week: "I said woo-hoo!"

Wolf, 67, disputes Feder's characterizations. He has noted that he called for an investigation of price gouging by oil companies after Hurricane Katrina. He has said he received $70,000 in campaign contributions from energy companies during 26 years in the House. And he has said he voted for legislation to increase spending on alternative energy research.

"I don't think anybody's done enough -- this is really the time to do more," Wolf said. "But hers is just a position of gloom and doom and negative -- condemning, complaining."

Feder and other challengers confront the question of whether a strategy emphasizing energy policy and high gas prices will still resonate with voters.

"The issue of energy independence remains as important now as it was when I spoke about it at the beginning of the campaign, and it has been for decades," Feder said yesterday. "Oil prices are still high. Congress is still squandering resources to oil companies that they don't need. We saw the price of oil spike this summer. It ain't going to be the last price spike."

Democrat Andrew Hurst, who is challenging GOP Rep. Thomas M. Davis III in the 11th District, said criticism of Republican energy policies continues to resonate as much as it did when pump prices were above $3 a gallon.

"There's a bit more anger when gas prices go up, but they're equally angry about global warming," Hurst said of voters. "They're wondering why we're not investing in ethanol and solar and geothermal. They just don't see the government taking it seriously."

Hurst, 36, has criticized Davis for supporting an energy bill in 2005 that reduced investments in alternative energy sources and for receiving tens of thousands in campaign contributions from oil companies. Davis, 57, counters that he has supported efforts to secure $1.5 billion in oil-related revenue for the Washington area's Metro system through off-shore drilling legislation.

Drivers say they are happy that they are paying less at the pump. But several said the recent price dip is not likely to influence their votes.

"I don't think any of them have done enough," said Nick Dorosheff, 34, a house painter from Warrenton, in the 10th District.

Dorosheff commutes into Fairfax County each day. He has been forced to pay more for paint and raise his prices because of increasing fuel costs. He tends to vote Republican, and he has supported Wolf in the past. He is not sure how he will vote this year. But he said he is sure of one thing: Gas prices are not down for good.

"The other day it was a buck ninety-five out here," he said. "It's more likely to go up from there than the other direction."

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