In a 2008 race for retiring moderate Republican Tom Davis's seat, Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly defeated Republican Keith Fimian by more than 10 percent. Without a doubt, Connolly was aided by the influx of Barack Obama voters. Obama won Virginia's Fairfax County, which is in Connolly's district, and became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to carry the Old Dominion, which he did by 7 percent. Fast forward two years later, one year after Republican Governor Bob McDonnell carried this district in 2009, and the climate has changed. Republicans are energized. Independents are frustrated and souring. And Democrats seem lethargic, at best.
It is in this climate that Fimian, who was more to the right that Pat Herrity, whom he defeated in the GOP primary, was nominated for a rematch with Connolly. This district is the nation's wealthiest, and Connolly has come out against letting the Bush tax cuts expire for those making over $250, 000. Unlike many of his Democratic peers, though, Connolly has said he will not attack President Obama or other national Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi.
Fimian is trying his best to tie Connolly to a national political climate that is down on Democrats, citing Connolly's votes on for cap-and-trade and health care reform as proof that he is a part of the problem and nowhere near the independent voice he claims to be.
Connolly does have an advantage, though. He knows this district inside and out and is an old-school pol who chaired the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for a decade. While those qualities may be disfavored in this election cycle, especially in more conservative regions of the country and state, retail politics still matter, and Connolly is good at them.
Case in point: At a candidate forum hosted by Asian Americans in Fairfax County, Connolly and Fimian showed their strengths and weaknesses as candidates. According to some insiders who were present at the debate, Fimian gave standard talking points and had trouble identifying issues he had worked on that benefited the Asian American group that was hosting the forum. Connolly, on the other hand, made sure to indicate how various bills he had supported would directly benefit Asian Americans, in addition to highlighting work he had done on behalf of the community while a county chairman.
Though just one example, this incident shows how adept Connolly is at retail politics and how Fimian may not be ready for a primetime competition against a seasoned pol like Connolly. This reality may be disconcerting to some Republicans, given that this race is a rematch of the 2008 contest, from which Fimian should have picked up a few lessons and pointers.
Connolly's familiarity with the district's voters, particularly those in vote-rich Fairfax County, is why Fimian, perhaps more than other GOP candidates, needs to rely on the national wave of discontent if he is to have a chance of knocking off Connolly. If Connolly runs up big margins on his home turn in Fairfax County, it'll make his re-election a much easier task.
Bottom line: it'll be interesting how, both candidates being equal, this year's returns differ from 2008.