Wolf's Decisive Win Surprised Even the GOP

(Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008

No one, not even Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), predicted the drubbing that he delivered to Democratic challenger Judy M. Feder in Virginia's 10th Congressional District, where Wolf won by 20 percentage points this month. Even his most ardent supporters are wondering (happily) how a Republican could pull off such a dramatic victory in the year of the Democrats, particularly in Northern Virginia.

"I can't explain," said Dan Scandling, Wolf's campaign manager and longtime chief of staff. "It's great, but I can't explain it."

Wolf, a member if the House since 1981, beat Feder despite a tide that swept two Democrats into office at the top of the ticket: Barack Obama and Mark R. Warner. Wolf won all 10 cities and counties represented (in total or part) in the 10th District, which stretches from McLean to Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley. He won by a greater margin than he had in 2006. He won along the border of Arlington County in McLean, a strong Democratic enclave near Feder's home that he did not win two years ago.

The victory itself didn't surprise many. Wolf is popular in his district and outspoken on a variety of issues, such as opposing new power lines across western Virginia planned by Dominion Virginia Power, supporting an extension of Metrorail to Dulles International Airport and opposing toll increases on the Dulles Greenway. These issues resonate for his constituents, who include preservation-minded landowners and toll- and traffic-weary commuters.

"They know me," Wolf said of his election to a 15th term. "People in McLean know what I've done on the George Washington Parkway. People in the valley know what I've done on the Civil War battlefield. People in Loudoun County know what I've done to bring rail to Dulles."

People also like Wolf, a fact that even Feder's pollster, Peter Brodnitz of Benenson Strategy Group, conceded in remarks to the Northern Virginia Democratic Business Council after the election. Wolf, 69, is a conservative Republican who avoids public speechifying about polarizing issues such as abortion and who has succeeded in keeping public attention away from a voting record that has been in lockstep with President Bush for much of the past eight years.

Wolf is an outspoken advocate for human rights who has been credited with helping to bring the atrocities in Sudan to the attention of Congress. And he runs an efficient constituent services operation with a personal touch, writing letters and making phone calls when residents of the district need help.

"His assistance to my family has spanned decades for us," said Erika Hodell-Cotti, 35, of Loudoun County, whose two brothers attended West Point Academy on the recommendation of Wolf, and who more recently received his help while navigating the world of international adoptions with her 17-month-old son from Korea.

"If you talk to people about Frank Wolf, a lot of people say, 'Boy he's been around a little too long,' " Brodnitz said. " 'But he always sends me mail. We got a letter when my kid graduated from, whatever it was, he got an award.' He has very good constituent services and people have these little experiences with him."

There are more technical, election-related theories about why Wolf won. Feder, 61, declined to comment on the numbers, saying only: "I'm enormously proud of the race we ran, the issues we raised, the importance of changing the direction of the country. Although I'm sorry not to be a member of Congress, I'm very glad that I carried the voices of so many voters in the 10th District who want change."

Brodnitz said that Feder was not known by more than 40 percent of the district's voters, despite spending $2 million this year and $2 million in 2006. That illustrates how hard it is to go up against an entrenched incumbent in one of the most expensive television markets in the nation.

Feder also might have been harmed by the spike in voter turnout. Because she did not succeed in giving voters a reason to vote against Wolf, those turning out in higher numbers for Obama were probably widening the margin between her and Wolf.

Wolf pointed to the primary as a key moment in the campaign. Knowing that Feder was staging a rematch, and knowing the year was likely to be a good one for Democrats, Wolf and Scandling decided to focus on beating back a primary challenge from little-known Republican Vern McKinley. It paid off: Not only did Wolf win with 92 percent of the vote, but more than three times the number of voters turned out for him than did for Feder in her primary battle, giving him a jump-start on building a Republican organization for his general election contest with her.

"I think the primary got us out earlier," Wolf said. "It got me moving faster."

Wolf is still moving: According to Scandling, Wolf is "definitely" running again in 2010.

Feder demurred when asked about another run. "I was thrilled that Virginia turned blue," she said. "I would have liked to have been a part of it."

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