The man likely to become Virginia's most junior congressman may be taking a demotion for his new gig.
Former Virginia Lt. Gov. Don Beyer (D), a longtime power-broker in Democratic fundraising circles, is running comfortably ahead of his primary opponents and is likely to win the suburban D.C. seat held by retiring Rep. Jim MoranJim MoranFormer reps: Increase support to Ukraine to deter Russia GOP Rep. Comstock holds on to Virginia House seat 10 races Democrats must win to take the House MORE (D-Va.), according to private polling and strategists.
But Beyer says the problem of gridlock is exactly why he’s running, and if he secures the Democratic nomination he’s a lock in November in the heavily liberal district.
“It's because Congress has been at least perceived to be dysfunctional and ineffective,” he told The Hill. “I’ve been among the many Americans complaining about it, and I thought it's important to try to make it better.”
He also pointed out that leaving elected office wasn’t his choice in the first place. Beyer lost a bid for governor to former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R) nearly two decades ago, his last run for office.
“I left involuntarily. I lost that race in '97, and ever since I've been looking at ways I can be most involved,” he said. “This is the 2014 answer to how can I make the biggest difference today.”
Following his 1997 loss, Beyer became the cheerleader for other Democrats. The wealthy auto dealer helped Mark WarnerMark WarnerTop Senate Intel Dem: Nunes's meeting on WH grounds 'more than suspicious' Sunday shows preview: Aftermath of failed healthcare bill Devin Nunes has jeopardized the oversight role of Congress MORE win the governorship in 2001, then headed up to Vermont to aid then-Gov. Howard Dean (D) early on in his presidential bid. In 2008 he was an early and vocal supporter of then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaMSNBC's Maddow most-watched among younger viewers for 3rd-straight week Overnight Energy: Trump's climate order coming Tuesday Feehery: Freedom Caucus follies MORE’s presidential bid, working as a top fundraiser and walking the Iowa cornfields knocking on doors.
His service was rewarded with plum ambassadorships. But when Moran retired it became clear the 63-year-old Beyer still had the itch for elected office.
Beyer, who still has high name ID from his previous runs and his car dealership, quickly jumped into the contest, and used his impressive rolodex and personal fortune to raise and spend around $1 million on the race. He was the first on the air and has far outspent his opponents on television."
“The last time he ran for anything was in the last century. I was kind of surprised, I wondered if he was bored,” said Democratic strategist Carolyn Fiddler, who lives in the district and has worked in Virginia politics.
But Fiddler said Beyer has shown he still has the fire in the belly needed to run a strong race.
“He has all the money, he has a lot of name recognition in Virginia and especially in the area, and he's been very aggressive. He's just run a decent and well-funded campaign,” she said, predicting that he would win.
Beyer had some big-name help. Dean headlined a campaign event for him, as did top Obama alumni Jim Messina, Julianna Smoot and Melody Barnes. David Axelrod and David Plouffe have also helped out, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is another backer.
But what Beyer sees as his strengths, his opponents are trying to paint as weaknesses.
“People are looking for someone who can be like Jim Moran, be there many years and build seniority,” said Virginia state Del. Patrick Hope (D), who’s running as "a loud, proud, and persuasive voice for our progressive values," as he wrote in a recent op-ed.
“Being a car dealer is one thing, but being an elected official who's been in the paper for doing good work is another,” said Virginia state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), another challenger who’s touted his liberal bona fides in mail and on the trail.
“I've gotten legislative results and worked with the voters in recent years. No disparagement, because he hasn't been working with the voters recently, but I think it'll serve me well,” Ebbin added.
It’s unclear how Beyer thinks he’ll have more influence in Congress than outside it, when he’s been raising money for and bending the ear of influential Democrats. Beyer took a long pause when asked how he would, struggling for a response before apologizing and saying he was trying to “take a 20 minute answer” and condense it.
“The older I get, the more convinced I am that almost everything in life is about relationships, the growing appreciation of growing relationships of trust and respect including across party lines,” he finally said. “If we have this paradigm right now of intensely bitterly partisan dissension, I want to go be the opposite, try to go and bring people together, look for common ground, narrow differences.”
House primaries are unpredictable, and some of Beyer's opponents have run strong races despite having far less money. But the crowded field of candidates trying to run to his left has made it hard for any one of them to break out as his main challenger. At one point there were nine Democrats running for the seat, though a few have dropped out along the way.
Even some of those working on other Democratic campaigns admit that it looks like Beyer will win on Tuesday. But they still can’t figure out why he’s running.
“I frankly don't know why an ambassador would want to go be a junior congressman. For someone with his resume to run for Congress is a head-scratcher to me,” said an advisor to one rival campaign. “If I'd played professional ball and wanted to play in the minor leagues I'd clean up too.”