Two years ago, Rep. Gerald Connolly’s reelection race proved to be one of the hottest in the country, as the Northern Virginia Democrat held onto his seat by fewer than 1,000 votes.
History does not appear likely to repeat itself in 2012.
The two Republicans vying to face Connolly this time around are first-time candidates struggling to keep up with the incumbent in the fundraising department. And the new congressional map of Virginia awaiting federal approval would make the Fairfax-based district safer for Democrats.
“It’s a couple of unknowns trying to take on an increasingly entrenched incumbent who the Republicans couldn’t knock off in a really strong Republican year,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University.
Those odds haven’t dissuaded retired Army Col. Chris Perkins and traffic engineer Ken Vaughn from making plays for the seat in 2012. But neither man appears to bring the same firepower to the table as the 2010 Republican candidates — Pat Herrity, a member of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors with deep political roots in the district, and Keith Fimian, a wealthy businessman with a demonstrated ability to raise campaign cash.
With his military background and an initial burst of strong fundraising upon entering the race last year, Perkins would appear to be the more attractive candidate to the Virginia Republican establishment. Yet Perkins ended 2011 with just $47,000 in his campaign bank account, having already spent nearly three-fourths of the money he raised for the year.
Vaughn, who has been active in Northern Virginia’s tea party movement, ended the year in only slightly better shape. Vaughn’s campain had $52,000 in the bank, after having loaned his campaign $80,000 last March. Connolly, meanwhile, had $732,000 on hand at the end of the year.
In separate interviews, both Republicans expressed confidence that they could compete financially.
“I don’t think I’m going to have a problem raising the requisite amount to take Connolly on in a real battle,” Perkins said.
Vaughn, meanwhile, said many Republican donors were “waiting for the nominee to be chosen and then they’ll come and support them. There is a lot of money sitting on the sidelines out there.”
If Vaughn and Perkins hope to reap a windfall once the Republican nominee is chosen, they may have to wait awhile.
The U.S. Department of Justice has not yet cleared the state’s congressional map, affirming that it comports with the Voting Rights Act. With the primary currently set for June 12 and the filing deadline March 29, the state House passed a bill Wednesday that would move the primary to Aug. 21 if the plan does not receive federal approval by March 20.
The new map subtracts some Republican-leaning parts of Prince William County from Connolly’s district and adds more Democratic-leaning territory along the Dulles Toll Road, including Herndon and Reston.
The nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report does not even include Virginia’s 11th district on its list of 54 seats that are “in play” in November, a striking change given that it was held by a moderate Republican, Tom Davis, for more than a decade, and played host to such a tight race in 2010.
Nathan Gonzales, the Rothenberg Report’s deputy editor, said much of the shift was attributable to redistricting.
“Republicans chose an incumbent-protection plan that helped their own members but also made it more difficult to defeat Connolly,” Gonzales said.
And unlike in 2010, when Democratic turnout dropped in many parts of the state, President Obama’s return to the top of the ballot in November will help drive his party to the polls.
Vaughn’s campaign message puts a heavy emphasis on the growing national debt. As an engineer who advises state and local governments on using technology to solve traffic problems, Vaughn also plans to focus on transportation issues.
“The first thing I thought when I saw the new map was, ‘This is a commuter district,’ ” Vaughn said, adding that he believed the plan to extend Metrorail to Dulles was “a huge boondoggle.”
Perkins said he would highlight the importance of free markets and limited government. “My message is pretty simple,” he said. “I’m going to protect the Constitution from those who disregard it if it doesn’t quite fit their agendas.”
On abortion, Perkins said he opposes using federal funds to pay for the procedure, but ultimately the decision “should be up to the woman, her doctor and her God.”
That position could prove helpful in a general election, given the moderate lean of the district, but it might pose a problem in a Republican primary.
Yet Vaughn’s view may not sit well with some antiabortion voters either. “I’m personally pro-life, but I don’t think the Constitution is clear enough to say what the law should be at the national level,” Vaughn said.
While Vaughn has sought to engage Perkins in one-on-one debates, Perkins has refused, calling primary debates “divisive” and “counterproductive to the party.”
“I’m running against Connolly and I’ve said that from the beginning,” Perkins said.