Virginia could predict GOP's 2010 gains

Virginia’s election-night results could be an early predictor for the rest of the country of the size and scope of Republican gains in 2010.

For starters, Virginia will be one of the first states to see official results; polls there close at 7 p.m.

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And second, the various competitive House races offer a window into the different strategic scenarios party strategists are dealing with in dozens of races across the country.

At least four of the state’s incumbent Democratic representatives are GOP targets this year — Reps. Tom Perriello, Glenn Nye, Gerry Connolly and Rick Boucher.

From a political standpoint, each district offers Republicans a different challenge, but taken together, said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the results will effectively tell the story of GOP gains in November.

“I think you can break it down this way: If Republicans only pick up one of these seats, they may only gain 10 nationally,” said Davis, a former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If they get two of them, then it’s probably 20-plus. If they win three of them, Republicans have the House.”

In Perriello’s case, the race features a Democratic incumbent in a Republican-leaning district who has voted for the most controversial aspects of President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda.

In Nye’s race, it’s a Democratic incumbent in a Republican-leaning district who has backed away from his party on some of those same issues and faces a strong Republican challenge.

In Connolly’s case, he’s a freshman Democrat in a marginal district banking on making the argument that his Republican challenger is ideologically out of step with the district’s voters.

And for Boucher, he’s a longtime Democratic incumbent who finds himself having to suddenly fire up the campaign infrastructure after not facing a credible challenge for years.

“These races will tell you the height of the Republican wave,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “It’s a pattern that’s repeated in multiple states across the country.”

For Republicans, one of the first steps is mopping up after some messy GOP primaries that took place on June 8.

Republican nominee Robert Hurt fended off six challengers who were backed by different Tea Party factions in the race to face Perriello. Hurt won with just over 48 percent of the vote and has since been endorsed by five of his six challengers. Hurt is also facing an Independent challenge from Jeff Clark, who said dissatisfaction with Hurt’s record motivated his entry into the race.

Businessman Scott Rigell’s post-primary position is slightly more precarious as he prepares to face Nye. He won his multi-candidate primary with less than 40 percent of the vote, and his Tea Party opponents have not solidified behind his bid. But, along with the ability to self-fund much of his bid, Rigell does have the backing of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), which Republican insiders expect to go a long way toward solidifying his support with the party’s base in the district.

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Perriello is one of the top Republican targets this year. The first-term lawmaker voted for the healthcare bill and the stimulus last year despite winning the closest congressional race in the country in a district carried by Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The X factor in the race is Perriello’s organization and ability as a campaigner, a big concern for Republicans in a district that’s as close to a must-win for the party in November as it gets.

Likely the most telling contest for the GOP will be the race between Connolly and auto dealer Keith Fimian. If that district goes Republican, it would signal that 2010 is a full-on GOP wave election, said Sabato.

While Republican nominees in the Nye and Perriello districts may not be conservative enough for some, the party is facing just the opposite issue in the race against Connolly. There, Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity was considered the more centrist choice in the June 8 primary, but he lost out to Fimian, who will face Connolly in a rematch of the 2008 race. Fimian bested Herrity 55-44 in the primary.

“It was a tough primary, no question,” said Fimian campaign manager Tim Edson. “But we already see signs of people rallying around our campaign. Gerry Connolly is the biggest unifier Republicans could ask for.”

Connolly’s case for reelection is much the same as the one he rode to victory two years ago — Fimian is too conservative for a district that includes parts of Northern Virginia.

“I’m not sure that just superimposing Tea Party talking points on the debate is a successful strategy,” Connolly said. He argued that his district is one that has been held by “moderate pragmatists,” people like himself and Davis. “I’ve had Republican moderates seek me out in droves since the primary and tell me they would like to help our campaign.”

Meanwhile, Boucher faces his toughest challenger in years: state Senate Majority Leader Morgan Griffith (R), who has served in the Legislature for over 15 years. Griffith is a top Republican recruit with support from the national party.