Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Northern Virginia's Republican Party hoped to recapture a House of Delegates seat in November. They are hoping to win a congressional House seat once held by Tom Davis. This version has been corrected.

Virginia Republicans reassess after Pat Herrity's 11th District primary loss

Fairfax County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors candidate Pat Herrity talks on the phone while greeting seniors at the Greenspring Retirement Community in Springfield during elections on Tuesday. At left is resident Mary Melling.
Fairfax County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors candidate Pat Herrity talks on the phone while greeting seniors at the Greenspring Retirement Community in Springfield during elections on Tuesday. At left is resident Mary Melling. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)
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By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010

He had name recognition, a moderate image in "purple" Northern Virginia and the full backing of the region's Republican establishment -- a trifecta that often leads to victory here.

But Fairfax County Supervisor Pat S. Herrity lost resoundingly Tuesday to businessman Keith Fimian, a self-proclaimed conservative outsider, in Virginia's 11th Congressional District primary. The loss has exposed a still-widening fracture between two sets of Republicans and thrown Herrity's once-promising political future into question, say party officials and campaign insiders.

His loss also puts added pressure on Northern Virginia's once-strengthening Republican Party. The GOP had hoped to recapture the House seat held from 1995 to 2008 by a moderate Republican, former Rep. Tom Davis, by electing another moderate, Herrity. But in the past year, Northern Virginia Republicans have been unable to capitalize on voter anger with Washington and its Democratic incumbents. In the first few months of 2010, two Fairfax Democrats won seats in the Virginia General Assembly in special elections against Republican Party-endorsed candidates.

"We need to embrace the climate and reach out to all aspects of our party," said Anthony Bedell, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, which had backed Herrity. "We need to unify."

Fimian, who runs a home-inspection company and raised nearly $1 million for his primary battle, will now face freshman Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) in a general election rematch in November. He lost to Connolly in 2008 by 12 percentage points but has been born anew as a "tea party"-backed conservative.

The race will be closely watched. The 11th District encompasses Fairfax and eastern Prince William counties, the same type of wealthy suburbs that helped President Obama win Virginia and propelled Connolly and a corps of freshman Democrats to victory. With its large federal workforce, two-career couples and increasingly young and foreign-born population, the district has leaned Democratic in recent cycles. But Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) carried the district last November, giving new hope for a possible Republican pickup.

It is also considered a key suburban battleground in the much larger Republican quest to take back control of Congress in the midterm elections.

"Northern Virginia is a bellwether," said Toni-Michelle Travis, a political science professor who teaches a course on Virginia politics at George Mason University. "If mainstream Republicans can't win in this climate, then it's just a sign at how strong the tea party is."

Meanwhile, Northern Virginia's moderate Republicans, once defined by an unusual brand of fiscal conservatism and an independent streak on social issues, such as immigration, are scratching their heads and wondering about their futures.

"It certainly is concerning," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), a five-term moderate who might face his own intra-party challenger in 2011. "The frustrating thing is if you do anything, you are no longer considered a conservative. It seems like tea partiers are against everything. What are they for?"

Herrity was roundly endorsed by all of Fairfax County's Republican leadership, prompting questions Wednesday about the party's political relevancy.

Davis said that Fairfax's Democrats were better-funded than their Republican counterparts and that independent candidates and outside political groups were siphoning off support to centrist politicians such as himself.

Northern Virginia's GOP leaders said that Fimian would be brought into the fold and that Republicans would rally behind him. "We have one great unifier, and his name is Gerry Connolly," Bedell said.

Herrity, whose political future seemed bright after a near-upset against Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) in January 2008, now faces an uncertain future. The chairman seat once held for 12 years by his father, the late John F. "Jack" Herrity, in the 1970s and '80s is no longer a viable option. Several people in Fairfax's business community seriously are considering their own chairman bid against Bulova. And several far-right Republicans, sensing Herrity's weakness, say they are looking at contesting the political scion's once-safe supervisor seat.

A noticeably ill Herrity, nursing a bad cold and running on a few hours' sleep Tuesday, told a dejected crowd of supporters at Brion's Grille in Fairfax that he would continue to serve his 50,000-person constituency in affluent Springfield. He lost to Fimian badly, by 12 percentage points.

"My passion for public service is as strong as ever," Herrity said after conceding the race.

With his well-known name, close ties to Davis and moderate image, Herrity was diligently recruited.

But Fimian insisted he would stay in the race and personally fund his own campaign. He was able to connect with voters upset with the economy and unemployment by criticizing Herrity's vote last fall as a county supervisor to approve a budget that increased property taxes.

His push to the right resonated, said Isaac Wood, a staff member with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "It's not only the year, it's the nature of Republican primaries. Whoever can run to the right has the advantage," Wood said.

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