In Virginia, Connolly-Fimian House race too close to call; 3 Democrats lose seats

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 6:34 AM

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) was holding on to a thin lead in the race to keep his seat Tuesday night, even as a Republican wave swept three fellow Democratic members of Congress from Virginia out of office.

In a rematch of their 2008 race, Connolly led Oakton businessman Keith Fimian (R) by less than 500 votes with 99 percent of precincts reporting in the 11th Congressional District, which includes most of Fairfax County and a portion of Prince William County. Connolly won by 12 percentage points two years ago and was leading Tuesday by less than 1 percent.

Connolly, a veteran politician who once headed the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, spoke to supporters late Tuesday and made what appeared to be an acceptance speech.

"I hope you will find me worthy. . . and accept my deep gratitude to continue to be able to serve this public for another two years," he said.

But Fimian did not concede. His campaign released a statement early Wednesday saying, "In an election this close, it is important to take the time to get the result right by seeing the counting and canvassing process through."

Fairfax elections officials said they had counted all of the votes - including absentee ballots - except for those in two precincts, where a small number of machines malfunctioned. Those votes will be counted Wednesday morning, Registrar Edgardo Cortes said.

Connolly won each of those precincts two years ago by 20 percentage points.

In the 2nd District in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, freshman Rep. Glenn Nye (D) was ousted by auto dealer Scott Rigell (R). In the 5th District in the central part of the state, first-term Rep. Tom Perriello (D) lost to state Sen. Robert Hurt. In the 9th District in southwestern Virginia, veteran Rep. Rick Boucher (D) lost his seat to state House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith (R).

The national momentum that carried Republicans to a projected majority in the House helped the party regain the ground it had lost in Virginia in 2008, when Connolly, Nye and Perriello all picked up GOP-held seats and President Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state since Lyndon Johnson. Some observers said they thought those wins heralded a decisive and lasting shift in Virginia politics. But it seems to have lasted just 24 months.

Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, said the reversal from 2008 showed the perils of reading too much into the results of any one election cycle.

"Virginia was two years ago - and remains - a two-party state, and the fortunes of the parties can shift significantly," Rozell said, noting that the second Fimian-Connolly race "definitely wasn't supposed to be this close."

In a statement congratulating Hurt on Tuesday night, Perriello said he was "proud" of his record. "Real change is not something that is measured in a year or two; I believe that our actions will ripple out for years to come," Perriello said.

Although many nonpartisan forecasters had predicted Perriello and Nye would lose Tuesday, Boucher's defeat came as more of a surprise.

In the Washington suburbs, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D) took more than 60 percent of the vote against Patrick Murray (R), a retired Army colonel, in the 8th District. Murray had gotten help and donations from some high-profile Republicans, hoping for an upset win, but the Alexandria-based seat tilts strongly toward Democrats.

In the neighboring 10th District, which stretches from McLean to the West Virginia border, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) soundly defeated underfunded Democrat Jeffrey R. Barnett, and Rep. Rob Wittman (R) triumphed over Democrat Krystal M. Ball in the Fredericksburg-based 1st District.

Virginia's other incumbents - Reps. Eric Cantor (R), J. Randy Forbes (R), Robert W. Goodlatte (R) and Robert C. Scott (D) - were reelected by comfortable margins.

In the 11th District, where Connolly beat Fimian handily in 2008, the race remained too close to call Tuesday night. Under Virginia law, there are no automatic recounts, but the loser may request one if the final margin is 1 percentage point or less.

Until recently, the rematch was not viewed by either party as one of the more competitive races in the country, but the contest became close enough that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poured $1.5 million into the district to help the incumbent.

In both matchups, Connolly sought to paint Fimian, founder of the home inspection firm U.S. Inspect, as a political novice with no record of service to the community. More crucially, Connolly and the DCCC launched waves of ads and mailings trying to paint Fimian as too conservative for the moderate Washington suburbs, highlighting his opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

In the last week before the election, Connolly sought to capitalize on a TV interview Fimian gave in which the Republican suggested that the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre might have been avoided if students on campus had been "packing heat." At the same time, a gun control group backed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg aired an ad - starring the brother of a Virginia Tech victim - hitting Fimian for not supporting closing the "gun show loophole."

Fimian apologized for his comments on Virginia Tech, saying that he hadn't appreciated the "gravity" of the issue. But he spent the final days of the campaign dealing with unwanted questions from the media on the subject of guns.

Fimian sought throughout the race to keep the focus on jobs and the economy rather than social issues.

Although the 11th District has a relatively low unemployment rate and the highest median per capita income of any congressional district in the country, Fimian made a broader argument that federal spending and the budget deficit were spiraling out of control and that Connolly was complicit.

Fimian also cast Connolly as a "career politician" who would be unable to effect change in Washington.

"I'm not going to Congress to complete my life," Fimian repeatedly said during the campaign. "I'm going there to break china."

At Saratoga Elementary School in Fairfax, Al Friebe, who has lived in the area since 1992 and said he usually supports Democrats, cast a ballot Tuesday for Connolly for the second time. "I'm not particularly happy with the Democrats, but I'm less happy with the Republicans," he said.

But John Anderson, 79, a resident of the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield, called Connolly a "stooge" for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who was not the right person to fix a struggling economy.

"I'm concerned about the budget situation. I'm concerned about the job market, because I have two sons," Anderson said. "I'm concerned about the fact that my grandchildren will be paying off debts that Obama has run up."

In the 5th District, Perriello's race against Hurt was drawing national attention well before Obama headlined a rally Friday for the Democrat in Charlottesville.

Even as many of this fellow endangered freshman sought to survive by running away from the president, Perriello drew notice by doing the opposite - he voted for Obama's health-care, energy and economic stimulus bills and defended them in public. Perriello was a near-constant presence in the local and national media and held dozens of town hall-style meetings as other Democrats were trying to avoid such unscripted forums.

Perriello's strategy enabled Hurt to paint the incumbent as an Obama and Pelosi pawn at a time when the two leaders were becoming increasingly unpopular in the conservative-leaning district.

Perriello raised and spent significantly more money than Hurt, but the Republican benefited from a larger share of the millions of dollars that poured into the district from outside groups.

Nye, Perriello's fellow freshman, took a different tack as he sought to keep the Virginia Beach-based 2nd District seat in Democratic hands.

Nye voted against Obama's health-care and energy bills and campaigned on the notion that he was one of the most independent Democrats in the country. But that did not stop Rigell and his Republican allies from seeking to tie Nye to the Democratic leadership.

Rigell also accused Nye of wielding insufficient clout in Washington, after the Pentagon announced in August that it planned to close the Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command. If it happens, the closure would deal an economic blow to the military-dependent region, as would a separate Pentagon plan to move a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier from Norfolk to Florida.

Rigell suggested that Nye had been blindsided by the Pentagon's decision, and Nye said that he was working across partisan lines to save the Joint Forces Command while Rigell was seeking to score political points.

In the 9th District, which covers the southwestern portion of the state, Boucher faced the same attacks Nye and Perriello did.

Although he has held the seat for 28 years and been reelected with ease, Boucher took pains in this election to distance himself from Pelosi and emphasize his "roots" in the district.

Boucher voted against the health-care bill but supported the climate change measure, which Griffith and other Republicans said would cripple Virginia's coal industry.

Staff writers Anita Kumar and Caitlin Gibson contributed to this report.

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