By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; B01
The recently passed financial overhaul bill has become a key point of debate in Virginia's 11th Congressional District race. But whether voters will be thinking about the legislation when they head to the polls this fall is another question.
Freshman Rep. Gerald E. Connolly ((D) and Oakton businessman Keith Fimian (R) have traded increasingly heated barbs about Wall Street reform. And their debate over the bill has broadened into a larger fight over which candidate is a fiscal conservative and who is telling the truth about his own record.
Connolly voted for the bill when the House passed it last month, and Fimian said he would have voted against it. Connolly's campaign has pounced, accusing Fimian of siding "with Wall Street over Main Street." Democrats think that contrast gives them a clear advantage and will help Connolly prevail over Fimian in November, as he did in 2008.
"There is a sense of outrage of people on Wall Street getting away with it," Connolly said in an interview last week, arguing that the bill was clearly "an issue of resonance" in the 11th District, which encompasses parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, and across the country.
But Fimian campaign manager Tim Edson said: "We need to hold the big banks and the career politicians accountable. The current bill doesn't do that, but it does make it harder for families and small businesses to get credit."
Which argument will appeal more to Northern Virginia voters? There haven't been any recent local surveys on the question, and national polls present a mixed picture.
A CBS News poll released last week found that 57 percent of respondents believed the government should increase regulations on banks and financial institutions. But it's not clear that the overhaul passed Thursday in the Senate has similar support.
A recent Bloomberg News poll found that pluralities of respondents thought the bill would protect the financial industry rather than consumers, would not force banks to make major changes in how they do business and would not soften the impact of another financial crisis.
The numbers are clearer when voters are asked about the Troubled Assets Relief Program, which Congress voted to create in 2008 but which has since been disowned by many lawmakers in the face of negative public opinion. The same Bloomberg poll found that 58 percent of respondents thought TARP was "an unneeded bailout," while 28 percent agreed it "was necessary."
That dynamic helps explain why Connolly is trying to run against TARP -- in a way that the Fimian campaign says is dishonest.
Taking advantage of lawmakers' ability to send out free mail, Connolly's congressional office recently sent a flier to constituents promoting his record of voting "against wasteful government spending." The mailing says Connolly "[v]oted against the Wall Street bailout and believes those funds should be used to pay down the debt." But Connolly wasn't in Congress when TARP was created, in October 2008, and he said at the time that he would have voted for it.
Technically, Connolly's mailer referred to his vote for a January 2009 resolution that opposed releasing the second portion of TARP funds. Connolly said this week that the mailing was clear and that he has "a record that speaks for itself."
Fimian's campaign said in a statement that it disagrees, arguing that the mailing proved that "Connolly has resorted to dressing up as a fiscal conservative" and "will say anything to get elected, even at taxpayer expense."
But Fimian also said in October 2008 that he would have voted for the TARP bill had he been in office, even though his current rhetoric -- like Connolly's -- is anti-bailout. "In hindsight, it was a poorly executed bill," Edson says of the TARP legislation.
Judging by the behavior of candidates across the country, supporters and opponents of the TARP measure think the bailout remains a salient campaign issue almost two years after it was passed.
But how much candidates' views on the financial overhaul will influence voters in November remains unclear.
Republican pollster David Winston said that he did not think the regulatory measure is high on most voters' lists of concerns and that neither Fimian nor Connolly will necessarily gain an advantage from his position on its passage.
" 'What is this going to do to grow the economy and create jobs?' " Winston said voters would ask. "If everybody's going to point fingers at each other, that's not what people want to hear."