Democrat James W. Benson is trying hard not to sound too Democratic in his House of Delegates campaign to represent one of the most Republican districts in Fairfax County. Benson, who is seeking a seat from the 37th District, tells voters he is closer to their moderate Republican views than the GOP's own candidate, Stephen E. Gordy.
Benson has spent most of his campaign portraying Gordy as a member of the "New Right," the ultra-conservative wing of the traditionally conservative Republican Party.
"Gordy's masquerading as a mainstream Republican," said Benson, 37, business manager for a national political newsletter. "He's trying to pull the wool over the voters' eyes."
"I am a conservative," said Gordy, 62, a retired Army officer. "But I consider myself in the mainstream of Republican voters . . . . I don't know what the 'New Right' is."
Democrats in Northern Virginia say they know what the New Right is: It is their chance to slip into a Republican bastion, woo moderate Republicans across party lines and walk away with enough votes to win a seat they never could pry away from a mainstream Republican.
That is why Benson was more ecstatic over the Republican results than his own in the September primary elections. He was beaming at the election return headquarters in the Massey Building when the final tally showed political newcomer and GOP conservative Gordy had defeated one of the most popular moderate Republican incumbents in Northern Virginia, John H. Rust Jr.
"It makes the campaign a lot easier," Benson said. "I would have had a rough time against Rust."
Many Democrats say Rust's defeat gave Benson his only chance for victory in the 37th District, which sprawls across the older, central section of the county, taking in Fairfax City, Mantua and Oakton. Of the 12 districts in Fairfax County, it ranked second from the top in its support for the Republican ticket in last fall's gubernatorial elections.
Because Democrats consider Gordy a member of the far right, the 37th District is one of only a handful of seats statewide they think they can take away from the Republicans this year.
Gordy counters that he beat Rust in the primary because the incumbent's voting record was too liberal for the Republican constituency. "The 37th District is looking for a conservative Republican," Gordy said.
Political observers in Fairfax County credit much of Gordy's success in the primary to a well-organized campaign organization. Others say the small turnout in the election allowed a small number of zealots to turn the voting in favor of the newcomer.
Political labels are important to the Democrats in this race. Benson says his number one campaign priority is "educating the public as to where Gordy's coming from as opposed to where he says he's coming from." In this campaign, Benson said, issues come second.
Gordy, in turn, describes his opponent as a liberal associated with the liberal-slanted political newsletter, The American Spectator. Benson argues that he is business manager for the publication and is not associated with its editorial policies.
In the political litmus tests of liberal versus conservative philosophies on social issues, the two candidates are sharply divided:
Gordy said he opposes the Equal Rights Amendment and is against abortion for any reason. He said he has won the endorsements of the Taxpayers Alliance and the Virginia Pro-Life group.
Benson said he supports the ERA and said abortion is a private matter that should be decided by individuals and not the government. He said he has won endorsements from the National Organization for Women, the Fairfax Education Association and the Virginia Education Association.
Campaign financial disclosure records from the primary show that Gordy has received $3,000 from the defunct reelection committee for John S. Buckley, a New Right delegate who was unseated last year. The records also show that Gordy received $1,000 from the campaign committee of George C. Landrith Jr., another conservative Republican defeated last year. Contributions from all listed sources totalled $4,785 for the primary. Gordy said he expects to spend about $7,000 on the general election.
Benson's primary financial disclosure report shows contributions totaling $1,525. A $300 contribution from Direct Mail Management was the largest single contribution listed in the report. Benson said he doesn't know how much the general election will cost, but said he has raised about $1,500 in contributions since the primary.
Despite the political labeling, name recognition will be one of the major deciding factors in the campaign, and both candidates are planning extensive door-knocking and mail-out campaigns.
Both candidates are political novices and both live in the Mantua area.
Gordy spent 30 years as an Army officer, then launched and retired from a second career as teacher, coach and principal in Loudoun County. He belongs to the Fairfax County Republican Committee, is past president of the Mantua Citizens Assocation and works with handicapped adults in the Fairfax County rehabilitation program.
Gordy graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and did graduate study in law at the University of Virginia. He is married and has three children.
Before assuming his present job as business manager for the newsletter of The Public Opinion Foundation, Benson coauthored four books, dealing primarily with community energy planning and conservation. He has worked for the Council on Economic Priorities in New York City and as a branch chief at a federal energy research agency.
Benson graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in science and has a master's degree in urban affairs pending from Virginia Polytechnical Institute. Benson is married and has three children.