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Va. Republicans aim to take 4 Democrats' congressional seats

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; A01

Newly energized by last month's landslide victories in state elections, Virginia Republicans are laying the groundwork to mount aggressive challenges against four Democratic congressmen next year.

Republican leaders think that they can reclaim at least two of the three seats they lost last year, when President Obama became the first Democrat in 44 years to win Virginia. They also think that the political climate has changed so decisively that they can unseat U.S. Rep. Rick C. Boucher, a 28-year incumbent from the far southwestern part of the state, where antipathy toward Obama and national Democratic policies run strong. And they are planning a well-financed challenge to Gerald E. Connolly of the Washington suburbs, where victory is possible although more difficult, they say.

"We have several seats we think we can retake here -- possibly more seats than any other state," state GOP chairman Pat Mullins said.

Few states will be more competitive in next year's congressional midterm elections than Virginia, where the economy, mistrust of such federal policies as health-care reform and Republican hunger after last month's wins have dramatically altered the political atmosphere. Republican Robert F. McDonnell won the governor's race last month by 18 percentage points, gaining the vote of every region in the state, including moderate Northern Virginia. Republicans also claimed the two other top statewide offices and picked up six seats in the House of Delegates.

With all seats in the U.S. House and one-third of the Senate up for election next year, most political experts expect Republicans to make gains in the midterms. How the races play out in Virginia will serve as a national barometer: If Democrats can hang onto at least two of the targeted seats, they'll have a good chance at holding onto their majority in the House, but if three or more are in jeopardy, Republicans could reclaim the chamber.

"It's as competitive as any state," said Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who as chairman of the Democratic National Committee will focus heavily next year on retaining control of the House. "That makes it worth watching."

In Virginia, the four Democrats are vulnerable in different ways. They represent all aspects of the state: affluent and urban Northern Virginia, struggling Southside and southwest, and military-rich Hampton Roads.

Perhaps most at risk are a pair of 35-year-old Democrats elected in Republican districts with help from an enormous surge in young and African American Obama voters, who will be difficult to draw out next year. In last month's governor's race, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds counted on Obama voters to lift him to victory, but broad support never materialized.

Tom Perriello won by just 727 votes in the sprawling 5th District, which encompasses Charlottesville, a left-leaning college town, as well as an economically devastated swath of southern and central Virginia.

Glenn C. Nye won more resoundingly in the suburban 2nd District, which is dominated by Virginia Beach and boasts one of the largest concentrations of military families in the nation.

"Last year when they ran, there was a very popular presidential candidate running who carried Virginia by a big margin," said Mullins, the GOP chairman. "Nye and Perriello won on his coattails. This year, there aren't going to be any coattails. They're going to have to win one-on-one against our candidates. And they're going to have to stand on their records. This year is going to be a very different election."

Perriello said there is a difference between being targeted and being vulnerable, and he said his support for health-care and energy reform are not as out of touch with his constituents as his opponents say. But even he seemed to acknowledge the challenge of winning next year as he described how he has sought to govern since taking office in January.

"My ultimate goal is not to get reelected," he said. "It's to know that I did the best damn job I could representing the people of the 5th District and making a difference. That's just a different litmus test than some of the powers that be are used to working with."

Boucher, of southwest Virginia's 9th District, is vulnerable despite longstanding popularity and a reputation for strong constituent services over nearly three decades in Congress. He won last year without opposition. But Obama also lost the 9th by a wider margin than votes in any of Virginia's 10 other congressional districts.

That showing is partly attributable to concerns among coal miners and other working-class voters about emissions limits, health reform and other Democratic priorities. What is unclear is whether a permanent shift in party identity is under way and whether Boucher -- and other blue-dog Democrats like him along the nation's Appalachian spine -- will be among that shift's first casualties.

Connolly of Northern Virginia's 11th District is by all accounts the least vulnerable of the four Democrats being targeted. But Connolly, too, benefited from a surge of Obama voters last year, and he must win back the droves of centrists and independents in his district who turned out for McDonnell last month. While he acknowledged that challenge, Connolly noted that one Republican victory, especially with a tough economy and a weak opponent, does not signal a change in the underlying dynamics of his district.

"A Republican on any day of the week can win an election," Connolly said. "We just witnessed it. But the default vote is Democratic, absent a bad candidate or some other factor. That defines a competitive arena."

Fairfax County businessman Keith S. Fimian is preparing for a rematch against Connolly, and Pat S. Herrity, an elected board member in Fairfax, is also considering jumping in. Several state lawmakers are considering runs against Boucher, and multiple Republicans have lined up to win the nomination in both the 2nd and 5th districts.

Mullins said he expects the challengers in all four races to run against the voting records of the incumbents on emissions restrictions, the stimulus package, an expansion of union powers and the health-care reform bill. Not all of the four Democrats voted in favor of all of these measures, but Republicans hope to use a broad brush to paint all four as close Obama allies and out of step with Virginia.

"These are not the votes Virginians want to see," he said.

Yet Republican hunger could present an opportunity for the Democrats, particularly in Perriello's 5th District, where at least seven Republicans are considering bids for the GOP nomination and where several factions of the conservative Tea Party movement are at work to make sure a like-minded candidate wins. Such forces could cause divisions among Republicans; some believe that a more moderate candidate would fare better against Perriello, while others have threatened to mount independent bids for office that could divide the Republican vote.

Kaine has said that Democrats have an opportunity of their own in Republican J. Randy Forbes's 4th Congressional District in southeast Virginia. But many believe that's a long shot in a district that favors the GOP.

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