Don Beyer took a break from mingling at a recent campaign event to pose for a picture with a group of supporters, including Samuel Hanoura, 18, who was a toddler the last time Beyer was on a ballot in Virginia.
These days, Beyer is running for Congress in Northern Virginia — part of a panoply of Democratic hopefuls including three African Americans, two openly gay candidates, a university professor and an Indian American business leader.
Rep. James P. Moran’s retirement threw open the 8th Congressional District’s Democratic primary for the first time in more than two decades, creating a chance for the party to anoint a fresh face in a district that receives outsize attention because it sits on the doorstep of the nation’s capital.
But in a testament to the power of money, establishment ties and name recognition, Beyer, 63 — a two-term lieutenant governor, former ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and co-owner of the eponymous area car dealerships — has emerged as the candidate to beat.
Beyer’s backers say he holds the right positions on issues that are important to Democrats and would bring business and political gravitas to a complex district heavily dependent on defense contracting and federal spending. That experience, his supporters say, is absent in the rest of the field.
But other Democrats, and even some of Beyer’s boosters, acknowledge the unfortunate symbolism of nominating the older white man who left office in January 1998. A party that claims to speak for a changing electorate that includes gays, young people, women and minorities — and that regularly criticizes Republicans for failing to do so — is choosing to miss a prime opportunity to match a face with that change, they say.
“It does bother me somewhat that the establishment, so to speak, seems to be lining up behind an old rich guy, not necessarily an old white guy, but an old rich guy,” said Gail Gordon Donegan, 51, a Democratic activist from Alexandria.
At first glance, the 8th District presents a seemingly golden opportunity for the Democratic Party to propel a new face onto the national stage.
Encompassing Arlington County, Alexandria, Falls Church and part of Fairfax County, the 8th is a wealthy and increasingly young area where the census places median household income north of $90,000 and the median age at 35. The district leans more to the left than 80 percent of all U.S. House districts; Obama won more than two out of three votes there in 2012.
That profile prompted a slew of younger Democrats to jump into the race: Del. Patrick A. Hope (Arlington), 42, a liberal stalwart in the General Assembly who founded the Virginia Progressive Caucus; Del. Charniele L. Herring (Alexandria), 44, the first African American elected to lead the state party; state Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (Alexandria), 50, the first openly gay member of the legislature and a darling of the LGBT community.
Also in the race is Lavern Chatman, the former head of the Northern Virginia Urban League who has enlisted fundraising help from family friend Oprah Winfrey. Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille is also running, another African American; as are Mark Levine, an openly gay and outspoken radio show host; Virginia Tech Professor Derek Hyra; entrepreneur Satish Korpe; and former Navy pilot Bruce Shuttleworth.
The candidates are mostly running as dyed-in-the-wool liberals who share the same views on most policies, including the economy, climate change, gay rights and local issues important to the 8th District’s substantial population of government workers.
During a lightning round at a candidates forum, when participants were asked whether they supported abortion rights without additional limitations, the answers ranged from “yes” to “yes, yes, yes” to “100 percent” to “1,000 percent.”
There’s Levine’s “aggressive progressive,” Shuttleworth’s “progressive warrior” and Ebbin’s preferred line, “Call me a liberal if you’d like.” Beyer, too, blends in on the position front, touting himself as the “proven, principled progressive.”
It’s exactly what many voters in the 8th District want to hear — but the size of the field and the similarity of the messages also make it hard for the not-Beyers to distinguish themselves from the man with the money and the recognizable name.
An early backer of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for president and Obama’s 2008 effort, Beyer belongs to powerful networks he has tapped in his campaign. Dean stumped for Beyer, his former campaign treasurer, in April, at the event where Beyer mixed with Hanoura and others.
One of the first calls Beyer made after deciding to run was to Anita Dunn, an Obama campaign veteran and now his campaign consultant. He counts other prominent former Obama hands like Pete Rouse, Julianna Smoot and Mitch Stewart as friends.
That network has given Beyer a ready-made fundraising advantage that has allowed him to swamp the district with glossy mail pieces — and to make a six-figure ad purchase on cable TV.
Beyer understood that it wasn’t a sure thing that he could connect with such a different electorate than the more-conservative one he faced 17 years ago. It’s younger and more liberal and ethnically diverse. Twenty-somethings have been flocking to Arlington and Falls Church to live near Metro’s Orange Line in recent years. Many have never heard of him.
His opponents have taken advantage of the potential weakness by questioning Beyer’s ability to connect with the area’s burgeoning population of younger voters.
“When I talk to them, you’ve got to push them a little — ‘Beyer Volvo, oh, okay,’ ” said Chatman. “But a lot of them can’t afford the kind of cars that Don sells.”
Ebbin said of his own legislative résumé, which he is touting to set himself apart: “This is not what I did 17 years ago. It’s what I am doing right now.”
Beyer said that the challenge was clear to him after his first campaign meeting.
“The central idea that came from it was, ‘Don, you need to reintroduce yourself. You can’t trust the people who voted for you in 1997 to remember who you are. And you certainly can’t trust that all these [voters] under 35 who live in Clarendon have any idea who you are,’ ” he explained.
Beyer established “proven” as the most important word in his message. Thanks to his Rolodex of donors, Beyer has emphasized the point early and often in paid media efforts, a strategy other candidates lacked the resources to deploy.
“We have state legislators on the ballot, but most of them have to deal with roads and streetlights and less significant kinds of issues,” said Bruce Neilson, 62, a Beyer supporter who lives in Fairfax. Beyer’s résumé is an “order of magnitude” above the rest, Neilson said.
He is also a seasoned, easy campaigner who reminisces about December door-knocking for Obama in Ottumwa, Iowa, ahead of the pivotal 2008 caucuses there. He is never shy about chatting with voters.
Hanoura, who was introduced to Beyer by a family friend working on his campaign and who says social issues matter most to voters of his generation, chalked up much of Beyer’s appeal to his personality.
“When we’ve chatted, I feel personally connected to him, because he’s just that kind of charismatic guy,” he said.
The race may also come down to geography. Although Beyer carries the greatest name recognition from the family business and his two statewide electoral wins, Hope holds an advantage of his own: He is one of only two candidates living in Arlington, the nerve center for the 8th District’s recently out-of-college crowd.
In a contest with so many candidates who count Alexandria as their base, Hope is making the most of his position. A lobbyist with a quirky habit of handing out zinnia seeds to voters — “they grow the best,” he says — he is prioritizing outreach to young voters with such tactics as weekly Metro Line tours.
“There’s another choice here that you have,” he said over a beet and radish salad and Diet Coke one recent evening. “You can elect for the future and have a new generation of progressive leadership or not.”
Beyer’s opponents have also tried to tar him for a more conservative past. When he was Virginia’s lieutenant governor, the state and the Democratic Party were more conservative than today. Comments he made after leaving office have also been called into question.
In an interview, Levine said Beyer “is not a liberal Democrat. He’s a conservative or moderate Democrat.” He called Beyer out at the first forum, claiming he once supported overhauling the tax system by implementing a national sales tax as pitched by then-House Republican leader Tom Delay (Tex.) in a 2005 speech. Beyer was quoted in an Automotive News article saying the idea made “eminent sense as public policy.”
Now, he disputes he ever supported a national sales tax. And his embrace of liberal causes makes it harder for his opponents to tag him for his past positions.
A big uncertainty is whether younger voters will turn out in substantial numbers for an off-year primary that typically attracts an older crowd. If they don’t, that probably helps Beyer.
Even his younger opponents concede that the election is unlikely to pivot on young voters. “We’re not counting on it, but we’re happy to talk to everyone,” Ebbin said.
“In the end I think it comes down to who’s got the resources to bring voters out in what otherwise is going to be a really low-turnout primary,” said Christopher Newport University political scientist Quentin Kidd.
Older voters, too, are just now getting to know the candidates. Carolyn Price, 66, wants a “people person” to fill the Moran’s seat. A retired Fairfax County school bus driver living in Alexandria, Price has fond memories of the retiring congressman.
“If you spoke, he spoke to you,” said Price, who is African American. She is undecided about whom to support. But she could see herself voting for Beyer, who she said “seems the same way” as Moran.
The winner of the June 10 primary will face Marine Corps veteran and former congressional aide Micah Edmond (R), who by most accounts stands little chance of winning in the liberal enclave.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.