Campaigning against spending in area flush with federal funds

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Is the tea party-fueled backlash against government spending so strong this year that it will oust a Democratic congressman even in a Northern Virginia district that depends heavily on federal dollars for its livelihood?

That's the question in Virginia's affluent 11th Congressional District, spanning parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) faces the same challenger, businessman Keith Fimian (R), as he did when he won the seat in 2008. But the race is much closer this time because the GOP is so energized by anger over health reform, bailouts and other alleged signs of a government run amok.

Although he stresses that he's "not the tea party candidate," Fimian welcomes the group's support and colorfully adopts its militant opposition to spending, taxes and deficits.

Addressing a lunchtime debate sponsored by the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, Fimian warned that Connolly would tell "outright lies" to cast himself as a fiscal moderate.

"What he wants to avoid, folks, is . . . a big, black curtain with a terrible thing behind it that will devour your children," Fimian said, referring to the federal debt. "This terrible thing must be dealt with. Our economy is in severe trouble."

Connolly replied that some federal spending was necessary to prevent the recession from becoming a depression.

"You're darn right I voted for the stimulus. Every economist, including [some] Republican economists . . . said, for God's sake, don't let it go off the cliff," Connolly said. "It saved this economy."

The Connolly-Fimian race is pretty much the only one with any suspense this year in Washington's immediate vicinity, because incumbents seem set to win easily elsewhere in the region. The 11th is the swing "purple" district in Northern Virginia, tucked between the blue 8th of Rep. Jim Moran (D) and the red 10th of Rep. Frank Wolf (R).

The contest is also potentially of national interest, because the Democrats must hang on to it to have any chance of retaining control of the House. Basically, if the Democrats can't beat a candidate as conservative as Fimian in a district as moderate as the 11th, they're going to be looking at a large Republican majority after Election Day.

So far, most prognosticators expect Connolly to win, albeit by a narrower margin than the 12-point victory he scored over Fimian in the Year of Obama, 2008.

That's partly because of the unique role of the federal government in the 11th. Although much of the country is enraged over big government, it's harder to bash federal spending in a community that grew to be the nation's richest congressional district largely because of a sustained gush of government dollars.

"That tea party mentality - I don't know if it plays well in a district where you have a lot of federal contractors and a lot of federal employees," M. David Skiles, 23, a government affairs consultant in Fairfax, said after watching Tuesday's debate.

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