In Virginia, establishment candidates have the lead

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010; C01

VIRGINIA BEACH -- The story of the 2010 election so far has been the challenge to the Republican establishment by the party's angry and impassioned grass roots.

In Virginia, the establishment is winning.

Here in the 2nd Congressional District, car dealer Scott Rigell has ridden a wave of big-name endorsements and a hefty bank account into the lead position before Tuesday's Republican primary, even as five other candidates snipe that he is not conservative enough to deserve the nomination.

The dynamic is similar in the 5th District, where state Sen. Robert Hurt has the cash, the name recognition and the tacit blessing of Washington and Richmond luminaries in the crowded contest to face Rep. Tom Perriello (D). In the 1st District, Republican Rep. Robert J. Wittman's "tea party"-backed opponent appears not to have raised the $5,000 necessary to trigger federal reporting requirements.

Republicans in the 9th District did not bother with a primary, and the establishment favorite to oppose Rep. Rick Boucher (D) -- state House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith -- easily snagged the nomination over two opponents at a convention last month.

Only in Northern Virginia's 11th District does the self-described "outsider" Republican candidate, Oakton businessman Keith Fimian, appear to have a good shot at the party nod. And even Fimian has the experience of being the 2008 nominee and the backing of state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) to smooth his path.

In Kentucky, the site of the tea party's best-known success of the cycle, Rand Paul consolidated grass-roots fervor behind his GOP Senate primary contest against the establishment-backed Trey Grayson. Virginia does not lack for similarly passionate insurgent candidates. Rather, it has too many.

"Scott Rigell is well-positioned and he benefits, just like Robert Hurt, from the fact that his opposition is split," said David Wasserman, the House editor at the Cook Political Report. "If there were one identifiable, no-exceptions conservative in the race against Rigell or Hurt, we could have real contests on our hands."

The go-getters

In Hampton Roads, where Republicans are eager to oust Rep. Glenn Nye (D) from office after just one term, multiple Davids are flinging rocks at the Goliath in the race: Rigell.

"It's the establishment candidate versus the tea party candidate," said Ben Loyola, who considers himself the latter.

Loyola, a Navy veteran and owner of a defense contracting firm, got the endorsement of the Hampton Roads Tea Party last month. While others in the race suggested that the endorsement did not mean the group's membership was really unified behind any one candidate, Loyola said he believed the move was a "campaign changer."

"The tea party has shown [winning] is not about money, it's about votes," he said.

Loyola is no pauper; he's lent his campaign almost $1 million, but he still trails Rigell in the fundraising department, as do the other Republican hopefuls. The last public poll of the primary, conducted for Rigell's campaign in mid-May, showed Rigell with 47 percent of the vote and the other contestants at 10 percent or less.

Even as they acknowledge that Rigell is the front-runner, Loyola and the other candidates say the car dealer is vulnerable to the accusation that he's a "Republican in name only" for two main reasons: Rigell gave $1,000 to Barack Obama's campaign during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, and Rigell's dealerships participated in the federal "Cash for Clunkers" program that is loathed by many conservatives.

Army Reserve Gen. Bert Mizusawa's latest piece of campaign mail shows a picture of a smiling Obama and the words "THANK YOU SCOTT RIGELL," and his current radio ad slams Rigell, who has never held elected office, as a "typical politician." The campaign Web site of Scott Taylor, a businessman and ex-Navy SEAL, urges voters to "Take Back Washington! Send a SEAL not a R.I.N.O."

Rigell has been forced to explain the donation to Obama repeatedly during the campaign and did so again in an interview Tuesday.

"I was deeply concerned about the momentum Hillary Clinton had and don't like imperial families," Rigell said, later adding that he "had some deep reservations about [John] McCain's ability to win" and so feared that one of the Democrats would probably be elected president. (Rigell also donated to Mitt Romney's campaign and, during the general election, to McCain's.)

As for the clunker program, Rigell said he felt he had an "obligation" to his employees to keep his dealerships competitive by participating.

Are the attacks on Rigell working? Taylor said he has seen an evolution as he has knocked on doors across the district: "Several months ago, no one was talking about the Obama donation. Now everyone is."

Taylor, Loyola and Mizusawa each said they think they were in first or second place alongside Rigell. Loyola's spending is second to Rigell's, and he has been advertising the longest. Mizusawa has the longest résumé and the highest rank, in a district with a huge military presence. Taylor has the biggest online presence and campaign experience from a failed run for Virginia Beach mayor in 2008.

All three acknowledged that -- as is often the case when established car dealers run for office -- Rigell was the best-known candidate.

Because of Rigell's strong name recognition and deep pockets, national GOP strategists are privately rooting for him. Publicly, he has the endorsement of Virginia's top Republican, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. Although he has stayed neutral in the state's other competitive primaries, McDonnell is a friend of Rigell's and announced his support last month.

'Unfair playing field'

Shirley Darnauer, who works for a local insurance company and has been active in Republican politics for 35 years, said McDonnell's endorsement of Rigell left a bad taste in her mouth. She is backing Loyola in the primary.

"I don't like the way they've been endorsing from the top down," Darnauer said. "I thought [McDonnell's endorsement] made it an unfair playing field. I don't have anything against Scott Rigell, except that I feel the election has been bought."

Similar sentiment is bubbling in the 5th District.

"Despite Robert Hurt's attempt to claim that he is one of us, he continues to rely upon his Richmond, Washington, D.C., and out-of-state political and media consultants," read a missive this week from the campaign of property developer James McKelvey.

But in a field divided so many ways, Hurt's superior organization looks decisive. As with Rigell's poll, Hurt's last campaign survey showed him with a wide lead, while McKelvey and the rest of the pack carved up the anti-Hurt vote several ways.

Not all the voters in these contests are clamoring for a revolution. Wayne Coleman, owner of a Norfolk-based commercial freight company, said he was "in the middle" ideologically, and liked Rigell best because of his "degree of business experience."

"I consider this tea party that has been quoted in the paper as being extremists," Coleman said.

Against one candidate or five, Rigell is convinced that the tactic of tarring him as an "insider" simply won't work.

"I think it is really laughable to say that a person who wasn't even considering running . . . is an insider," Rigell said. "I think there's no basis for that, and I don't think it's getting any traction within the district. No one's treating me on the campaign trail . . . as an insider."

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