By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
Representing a swing district in a swing state, freshman U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach, is trying to triangulate his way to a second term.
Paul Hirschbiel wants to take the Hampton Roads district back for the Democrats, and he accuses Rigell of an “extreme” voting record.
But the 2nd Congressional District contest — the only congressional race expected to be close in the Old Dominion this year — may be out of the combatants’ hands.
“A lot depends on the presidential race,” says Jesse Richman, a political science professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. “(President) Obama is making a big push in Hampton Roads.”
Both Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney have made repeated visits to the district. Romney chose Norfolk as the venue to unveil Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. On Thursday, Obama is scheduled to make another campaign stop in Virginia Beach.
Democrats are banking on a replay of 2008, when a large turnout of minority voters carried the 2nd District for Obama 50-49. Democrat Glenn Nye was elected to the district’s congressional seat that year.
But the tide shifted in the 2010 bi-election. Riding a wave of what Richman terms an “older, whiter” electorate, Rigell beat Nye by 11 percentage points.
Conservatives believe they still have the wind at their backs.
“The presidential race is energizing the grassroots,” says Keith Freeman, president of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, a five-city group with 1,800 members.
With a strong showing by Romney, Freeman says Rigell “should win by 10 points,” though the tea party leader isn’t overly enamored with the congressman’s record.
Others say the congressional race, like the presidential contest, is too close to call.
“Hirschbiel is not a pushover … but in a year where there’s not a clear wave developing for Democrats nationally, Rigell remains a small favorite,” says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
In an effort to hold onto middle-of-the-road voters, Rigell backed off an initial “no-tax” pledge he made to Grover Norquist‘s Americans for Tax Reform in 2010. Freeman said Rigell made the right move in terms of local politics.
“The pledge actually precludes you from any kind of tax reform. It’s a propaganda gimmick that paints you into a corner,” the Freeman said.
Home to the world’s largest naval base, Hampton Roads depends on military jobs — and government spending. Faced with the choice of a being a deficit hawk or a defense hawk, Rigell has taken the latter course.
Earlier this month, he voted against a continuing budget resolution because it didn’t contain money for overhaul work on the aircraft carriers Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln is based in Norfolk, the Roosevelt in Newport News.
Hirschbiel has mocked such political trimming, charging that Rigell cannot be counted on. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has jumped in with $424,000 in TV advertising to broadcast that criticism in Newport News, Norfolk and Portsmouth.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has reserved $160,000 in local TV ad buys.
Hirschbiel strikes a populist pose that pushes for congressional pay cuts and tighter controls on lobbyists while he derides Rigell as an “extremist” beholden to corporate fat cats.
But this is no rich man, poor man race.
Campaign-finance reports show that Rigell and Hirschbiel, a current or former chief executive at several venture-capital and investment firms, are closely matched. Indeed, the Democrat collected 82 percent of his funds from large donations (defined as more than $200 by the Federal Election Commission), compared with 59 percent for Rigell.
The Republican raised $1.65 million through June 30, with more than $1 million cash on hand. Hirschbiel has collected $1.15 million, with $797,000 cash on hand.
One of the biggest donors — Norfolk Southern — split its bet, giving $24,000 to Rigell and $22,500 to Hirschbiel.
Some of Hirschbiel’s funding raised concerns at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which ranked his financial disclosures “incomplete.”
“Hirschbiel’s (68 percent “full disclosure”) number is quite low” relative to other congressional candidates, said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the center.
Rigell’s financial report earned a “full disclosure” grade from the center.
Biersack said the center bases its assessment on the completeness of donor information, including the occupations and employers of contributors.
Neither Hirschbiel nor Rigell responded to Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau‘s repeated requests for interviews.
Freeman says Rigell has made himself readily available to tea partiers while compiling a voting record that conservative groups call moderate.
“He has a good record, not a great record,” Freeman says.
By breaking party lines occasionally, the first-term congressman is doing things his way.
Kondik notes that Rigell was one of only two Republicans to vote against holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. Rigell again broke GOP ranks Friday by voting against the “Stop the War on Coal Act,” citing concerns about its potential impact on Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts.
Further undercutting Hirschbiel’s charge that Rigell is a right-wing extremist, the American Conservative Union gave the lawmaker its lowest score among Virginia’s eight-member GOP delegation in 2011. The ACU ranks lawmakers according to their votes on 25 fiscal and social issues important to conservatives.
Rigell received a middling B grade from the National Taxpayers Union, another fiscally conservative group. NTU executive vice president Pete Sepp said Rigell’s votes placed him exactly at the ideological average for House Republicans.
Barring a game-changing campaign gaffe by either candidate, Richman believes that the 2nd District race will ride on presidential coat-tails because he sees few ticket-splitters among Obama and Romney supporters.
Karen Miner Hurd, chair emeritus of the Virginia Tea Party Alliance and a voter in the 2nd District, agrees.
“The idealogical lines between the Republican Party platform and the Democratic Party are clearly drawn, and there will be very little vote splitting,” she said.
Kondik opines: “Obama needs to have a decent showing in VA-2 — win or only lose by a point or two — to give Hirschbiel the cover he needs.”
“But,” he adds, “I don’t think they’re joined at the hip.”
Contact Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or (571) 319-9824.