Connolly Wins 11th District Primary

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gerald E. Connolly of Fairfax County, the top elected official of the region's largest jurisdiction, won yesterday's Democratic primary in the 11th Congressional District in a fiercely contested race to replace retiring Republican Tom Davis.

On a day of dismally low turnout -- less than 3 percent of registered voters cast ballots in many precincts -- Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, beat former representative Leslie L. Byrne with almost 58 percent of the vote in the most closely watched of yesterday's five regional primaries. Two lesser-known Democrats also were in the race.

The district has trended Democratic in recent statewide elections, and although Davis, a moderate Republican, has managed to hang on to the seat, his departure is widely viewed as an opportunity for Democrats to pick up a seat in Congress. The intensity of the Democratic campaign for the seat underscored Virginia's status as a state in play in the November presidential election.

"We come out of this landslide win going into November in a very strong position," Connolly said last night, referring to his next opponent, Republican newcomer Keith S. Fimian, a local businessman who is well-financed for the fall campaign. "This is going to be one of the most targeted races in the country. It's a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats."

Byrne declined to comment on the results last night, but her campaign manager, Joe Fox, said she phoned Connolly to offer her endorsement and help.

"The Democrats are primaried out," Fox said. "They've been through a long, six-month national primary, and apparently they needed more reason to go to the polls than they got from the candidates on the ballot. Gerry Connolly ran a good campaign."

By even wider margins, Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (D) and Frank R. Wolf (R) withstood primary challenges yesterday. In the fall, Wolf will face Democrat Judy M. Feder, who beat back a primary challenge yesterday from Mike R. Turner. Wolf defeated Feder handily in 2006. Moran defeated lawyer Matthew T. Famiglietti in the 8th Congressional District primary and will face Republican Mark W. Ellmore, who beat Amit K. Singh yesterday in a close contest.

Despite the significance of the race in the 11th District, which encompasses central and southern Fairfax and a swath of Prince William County, morning and lunch-hour rushes at polling places looked more like a trickle. At the Fair Oaks precinct of central Fairfax, 32 ballots had been cast when polls closed at 7 p.m. Fewer than 6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the primary.

"The presidential campaign has overshadowed this campaign," said Sally Ormsby, a precinct captain at the Price precinct in central Fairfax. "People weren't focused on this, even though it's a huge competition."

Connolly and Byrne, better-known and better-funded than the two others in the race, former Navy pilot Doug Denneny and physical therapist Lori P. Alexander, directed most of their campaign strategy toward each other in sometimes sharply worded speeches and mailings.

Connolly boasted of his five successful elections to local government, his leadership in a county that regularly wins awards for good management and his foreign policy experience working on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Byrne touted her long-standing commitment to such issues as abortion rights, health-care reform and living wages.

At times, the campaign's tenor grew sharp, with Byrne accusing Connolly of catering to the interests of campaign contributors and of working for a "war profiteer." (Connolly works for government contractor Science Applications International.)

"It's been lousy," said Doreen Williams, 81, a retired lawyer who voted for Connolly at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School, Byrne's home precinct.

Yet the two candidates' positions were not far apart on most issues. Both said they oppose the war in Iraq and support greater environmental conservation, an improved health-care system and higher wages for the working class. Both said they sought to reverse Davis's voting record. The incumbent has remained popular in his district for his moderation on social issues and his advocacy for the government contracting industry and such regional transportation priorities as the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Metro. But he also has come under fire for voting with President Bush for much of the past eight years.

Davis has endorsed Fimian, who owns a home-inspection business and has lent more than $300,000 to his own campaign. Fimian must overcome Connolly's name recognition across the region as well as his close ties to Northern Virginia's business community. He said last night that he is ready to contrast his "fresh ideas" with Connolly's track record as a "career politician."

"Elections are about choices, and in this case the choice could not be clearer," Fimian said. "With a guy like Gerry Connolly, the voters can choose more of the same. Or they can choose a new direction."

Connolly's primary win, meanwhile, keeps alive speculation about the domino effects that a November win would have on county politics. Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), the board's vice chairman and a close political associate of Connolly's, is considering a run for chairman if Connolly wins in November. So is Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield), who was elected to the board last year and is the son of late board chairman John F. Herrity.

Yesterday's results in the 10th District pit Wolf and Feder in a rematch. Feder said from her victory party last night that she is "building" on her performance two years ago, when she lost by 16 points despite raising more than $1.5 million in contributions.

"This is a district, you can see it from the excitement of the presidential race, that is looking for change," she said. "Issues that people care about -- health care, the economy, the war -- Mr. Wolf is either not engaged or he is standing in the way."

Wolf saw it differently, saying that twice as many 10th District voters turned out for the Republican primary than the Democratic primary. It's a sign, he said, of his campaign's superior organization and support.

"He's probably about the best congressman we have in the entire Congress," said Norma Moles, a retired school administrator who voted yesterday at the Ida Lee Park Recreation Center in Leesburg. "He has a good moral compass."

Staff writers Sandhya Somashekhar and Kristen Mack contributed to this report.

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