Can Tacking Right Save a Freshman Democrat in Virginia?

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During the debate over the passage of the cap-and-trade bill in the House, freshman Democratic Congressman Glenn Nye wrote one letter to a constituent expressing his support for the bill another to a different constituent detailing his opposition to it. Nye also, despite not being in Congress when it passed, stated that he voted against TARP. These moments of confusion or misunderstandings symbolize the predicament Nye faces in this right-of-center Virginia district, which he took from Republican incumbent Thelma Drake in 2008.
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On one hand, Nye must energize the African American vote in this district--a similar task to Obama's in 2008, only much harder because Obama's candidacy was historic, and minorities tend to not show up as much as white voters in midterm elections. On the other hand, he must peel off a critical mass of right-of-center voters who are angry and determined to go to the polls. Predictably, Nye, who was once a foreign service officer, has been attacked from the right and from the left (he has lost the endorsements of big labor groups). But unlike his freshman colleagues Tom Perriello and Gerry Connolly, Nye has tacked furthest to the right and, out of the trio, been the least responsive to President Obama's agenda.

Nye faces Republican Scott Rigell and independent candidate Kenny Golden. Rigell has run ads linking Nye to Nancy Pelosi and national Democrats. Rigell, an auto dealership owner, is a veteran in a military-centric district and an alum of Pat Robertson's Regent University's Business School, which is in this district. In an off-year election, these aspects of Rigell's bio will surely help him.

Rigell has also implicated Nye in the proposal to close U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, a decision that would have enormous economic implications in this district. Rigell has implied that Nye did not do enough to fight to preserve the command. Nye, on the other hand, is claiming that even Virginia's governor has acknowledged Nye's work in trying to preserve the command, even though it is highly improbable for any one member of Congress to influence the Pentagon's decisions on such matters. Again, such an issue may rile up voters in an election in which turnout will be the key.

During the GOP primary, Rigell, who poured almost $1 million of his own money into the race, was charged with donating to President Obama's campaign, which he claimed he did to block a Hillary Clinton presidency. Democratic groups have hammered Rigell on his donation to Obama, claiming that he is remaking his image to better align with this election cycle's anti-Obama climate.

Bottom line: this race is important to track because Nye represents the "stuck between a rock and a hard place" predicament faced by many freshman Democrats who were elected to more conservative districts on the strength of "Obama voters" in 2008. If these Democrats tack to the left, they risk alienating moderate conservatives and firing up right-wing voters in a low-turnout midterm election; if they tack to the right, they risk forfeiting any chance of exciting the liberal "Obama voters" that may not turn out to vote but, if they do, could potentially act as a firewall. Nye chose to tack to the right, and this race will determine if even that was enough for a climate so inhospitable toward Democrats and incumbents. 

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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