Campaigning against spending in area flush with federal funds

Sunday, October 17, 2010; C4

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.

Fimian thinks that even people who dine at the federal table are worried that the banquet has grown too large.

"Connolly would have you believe that federal employees are selfish and care only about their own paychecks. He's wrong," Fimian said in an interview. "Federal employees and contractors, they know their jobs are threatened by the fiscal mismanagement of this Congress."

The Democrat said Fimian didn't understand the district.

"You can't just superimpose national partisan talking points about the economy and about big, bad government and expect that to resonate unvarnished here," Connolly said in an interview. "We have a unique economy here, with public-private partnerships with the federal government. People expect their representative to protect that."

Arguing that he's far from a reckless spender, Connolly points to two jobs bills on which he broke with other Democrats and voted "no" because the legislation wasn't funded. That's small potatoes for Fimian, who says Connolly has voted for $3 trillion of spending.

Fimian faces some skepticism because of his strong conservative positions on other issues, such as his doubts about global warming and his opposition to abortion under any circumstances.

The abortion issue arose dramatically at a candidates' forum Wednesday before lawyers of the Fairfax County Bar Association and doctors of the Medical Society of Northern Virginia. Fimian sounded evasive when asked whether he opposed abortion even in cases of rape, prompting several women in the audience to shout at him to state his views clearly.

Acknowledging that he was antiabortion, period, Fimian said, "I'm not going to change my position just because I happen to be running for office." He tried to downplay it by adding: "That's not the issue in this race, folks. The issue is this race is the United States and our economy."

The latter point resonated with some people, including physician Linda Mosely, who is in her 60s. She said she didn't like Fimian's position on abortion but probably would vote for him anyway because his opposition to the health bill makes him "a stronger advocate for doctors."

If the tide of anti-government feeling swamps even Gerry Connolly, then the Republicans will be smiling especially broadly on Nov. 3.

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