WASHINGTON – Democrats are hoping that even in red state Virginia, with a district that has the largest concentration of military personnel and retirees in the state, they can take advantage of the national mood over the war in Iraq to win a congressional seat from Republicans in November.
The national party, as well as outside political fundraisers like MoveOn.org, have targeted Rep. Thelma Drake, a one-term representative for the 2nd Congressional District. They are hoping Democratic state revenue commissioner Phil Kellam has what it takes to beat her in the fall.
Though Republicans in this conservative district, which went for President Bush over Democratic Sen. John Kerry 58 percent to 42 percent in 2004, say Drake is solid here, political analysts are suggesting this is Virginia's only real competitive race this year.
"Conditions are ripe this year because of the national issues," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, who has recently upgraded this race from "leans Republican" to a "toss up" in his Crystal Ball list of competitive House races this year.
Though Kellam has been slow to clarify his positions on national issues, according to Sabato, the national mood is favoring Democrats. That, coupled with Kellam's "phenomenal" name recognition in Virginia Beach, the largest population center in the district, makes him a real contender.
But Drake, a former delegate to the Virginia General Assembly who represented this area before her election to Congress in 2004, has heard this all before. Her opponent for the open seat two years ago, David Ashe, was not only from Virginia Beach, but a former Marine. She still beat him 55 percent to 44 percent.
Add Drake's supporters, the congresswoman has not only grown into her new role, she has impressed her constituents and stayed true to her home base.
"I think it will be close, but she'll put it off," said Melinda Nimmer, an active Republican from Norfolk, Va.
"She is well-known and she is loved," Nimmer said. "I've known Thelma for years and years and when she is home she comes to speak to our Norfolk Republican breakfasts and she's so dead-on honest. It's genuine interaction."
Drake said over the last two years she has taken advantage of all the learning opportunities open to freshmen. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, she said she is doing her best to protect the interests of national security as well as the military constituents in her district. They include those stationed at Norfolk Naval Station, Langley Air Force Base, the Oceana Naval Air Station and the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock.
"I feel very involved in the issues," she said, adding that she has been "active in the district, doing a lot of constituent services," like holding town hall meetings and workshops, particularly on the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.
But Democrats have a different take. They accuse Drake of going to Washington, D.C., immediately losing touch with the district and ignoring the growing impatience with the Iraq war back home.
"There are some rumblings going on that our current congresswoman has not done the job she was expected to do," said Sandra Brandt, chairwoman of the 2nd Congressional District Committee for the state Democratic Party.
"Also, there's a lot of people down here who have loved ones in the war and they are really concerned about what is going on over there," Brandt said.
Democrats said they are unfazed by conventional wisdom that assumes military families and retirees will vote Republican. They point out that the district helped to elect Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine last year.
"This area worked very hard to get Gov. Kaine elected and he got cross-the-board support from a lot of people," said Brandt. "It's kind of an exciting time; we've seen a resurgence of the party in the district."
Republicans say the Democrats' idea of a "resurgence" is playing negative politics. They point to a set of MoveOn.org ads that ran in the district in June and other tactics. One of those ads accused Drake of accepting campaign funds from defense contractor Halliburton and then voting against congressional efforts to hold the company accountable for overcharging the federal government for its work in Iraq.
The ad was pulled by Cox Cable, which cited "business risks." Drake's campaign insists it was pulled because the charge about her vote is untrue.
"The Democrats have made it clear that in order for them to be successful they will continue to run negative campaigns full of hypocrisy and negative attacks," said Shawn Smith, executive director of the Virginia GOP.
Smith added that "Thelma Drake is a proven and passionate leader on behalf of our military and our veterans."
Bruce Meyer, chairman of the 2nd Congressional District Committee for the state Republican Party, said the ads have had the effect of energizing the Party there.
"It fired up our party," adding, "I don't think [Drake] is vulnerable."
Kellam's campaign said he is focused on local issues right now and would not agree to an interview. Campaign adviser Bob Doyle did say that Drake's position on the war, which he characterized as "stay the course," was in line with the Bush administration, as was most of her positions in Congress. But voters are looking for more.
"Thelma Drake has associated herself -- after almost two years in Congress -- almost uniformly with the interests of her associates in Washington rather than the interests of her constituents in the district," said Doyle. "Even in a district like this, where the conventional wisdom is it leans Republican … she is in deep trouble because of it."
Drake said that every attack against her is out of the Democratic playbook, and that charges like the one that she voted against funding for veterans are "absolutely not true."
"Someone is reading off a script and it's not me," she said.
Her Republican supporters call Kellam "wet behind the ears" on the issues and a tool of the larger political machine.
"He is not a bad guy," said Meyer. "It just looks like he's allowed the Democratic national machine to take over his campaign."
Mike Koceja, head of the Norfolk City Democrats, said Republicans are nervous that they are on the wrong side of country, particularly on the war in Iraq.
Changing course is the best thing Congress could do for the district's servicemen and women, he said. "I just think [Drake] has forgotten where she came from."