Del. Gary A. Reese walked the streets of his Northern Virginia district this weekend, reminding constituents to vote in his hotly contested Republican primary with Chris S. Craddock, a youth minister.
After pleasantries were exchanged and he asked several voters in Fairfax County how they liked their newly repaved street, Reese added a personal plea, as if the neighbors standing before him held the balance of the election in their hands.
"I need your help," he said under the hot sun Saturday morning. "It's a primary, and every vote counts. I need your help."
Reese, 60, is in a tough battle with Craddock, 26, who has mounted a spirited challenge against the two-term Fairfax delegate. At issue for both candidates in tomorrow's primary is the direction of the Republican Party in Virginia.
Much of the debate between the candidates has focused on the decision by Reese and a group of other House Republicans to buck their party's anti-tax stand in last year's General Assembly session. Six of those maverick delegates face primaries that involve debates on taxes and such social issues as abortion.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only states with major elections this year. In Virginia, the primaries are the first chance to gauge voter reaction to last year's legislative debate over taxes and services, and the results will be of interest to politicians across the country as they prepare their issues for future campaigns. The Republicans also are holding primaries for governor and attorney general. Republicans and Democrats have primaries for lieutenant governor.
Political observers consider the race in Reese's 67th District, which comprises western Fairfax and a small part of eastern Loudoun County, to be one of the closest House contests.
They regard the district as conservative. The 67th, which covers some of the fastest-growing Washington suburbs, contains a part of Fairfax that voted for President Bush in 2004 when the county went for the Democrat, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). It also is one that traditionally has supported Republican candidates for statewide office.
"This is not a liberal district," Craddock said. "We really have a chance to send a message."
Reese, a trial lawyer who served 10 years on the Fairfax County School Board, has sent out a mailer telling district voters that Craddock's brand of Republicanism is "reckless and extreme," saying his opponent's stance on the tax debate would have prevented schools from getting proper funding. Reese also said that Craddock, who has never held public office and does not belong to any civic groups, is inexperienced.
"I am a realistic conservative," Reese said as he walked through a neighborhood just a short drive from his house.
Craddock dismissed Reese's latest mailer as desperate, and he questioned the strategy in a primary in which many of the voters are likely to be conservative.
"He's just trying to paint me into a corner that I'm not in," Craddock said Saturday as he knocked on doors not far from Route 28 in Fairfax County.
Craddock has criticized Reese for failing to sign a "No New Tax" pledge and for voting to allow people applying for marriage licenses to get information on family planning and birth defects. He dubbed Reese a "liberal" for such stands.
"He's talking the right talk," Janice Rector said of Craddock.
She said she and her husband had just moved to the area from New Jersey and plan to vote tomorrow. "Seems like a good chance to get more conservatives" in state government, Rector said.
At Craddock's makeshift campaign headquarters -- his Fairfax townhouse -- teen volunteers piled into the living room, ready to make phone calls and paper the district with circulars.
"Pizza for everyone as soon as I get back!" Craddock promised the volunteers just before he began yet another round of door knocking in the afternoon. No one responded. Several were on the phone, and a few were looking over voter lists.
Several voters on a recent walk with Reese were aware of his support for the Northern Virginia transportation tax proposal in 2002 and his general support for more money for schools.
"We're with you, Gary," said Mark Steiner, who lives in the Westwood Hills neighborhood. "We'll be out there for you."
Since the campaign began in earnest several months ago, Reese has sought to convince voters that he is a social conservative. For example, he supports a ban on same-sex marriage. But he also has tried to rally organizations in the district that take centrist stands on taxes and services.
"We want to make sure that people know Gary took a principled stand last year," Richard Baumgartner, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said recently while walking with Reese around a district neighborhood. He was referring to Reese's initial support for the tax package that has sparked the challenge from Craddock, though Reese wound up voting against the final plan.
Craddock, who also is a soccer coach, gained early attention when he raised more money than Reese in the first part of the year, leading some to believe that his effort had picked up momentum against an incumbent who is receiving the public support of House Republican leaders. Reese out-raised Craddock in April and May.
As of June 1, Craddock had raised $71,872, with $19,500 coming from the Virginia Conservative Action PAC, a group supporting five of the challengers to the GOP incumbents. Reese had raised $157,525, with $50,000 coming from Leadership for Virginia, a political action committee organized to protect the maverick lawmakers.
Many of the challengers and incumbents in the Republican House primaries have received last-minute money from state and national organizations. Craddock, for instance, has received $5,000 from both the Virginia Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, and All Children Matter, a group that supports school vouchers. In May, the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association gave Reese $10,000.