Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2010

Virginia's 2nd Congressional District: Glenn Nye vs. Scott Rigell

Republicans would like to think freshman Democrat Glenn Nye's 2008 victory in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, which stretches along the East Coast from the state's Maryland border to its North Carolina border, was a one-time fluke. Nye, 35, benefited from a weak GOP incumbent (social conservative Thelma Drake), record black turnout and a wave election that saw Barack Obama defeat former naval pilot John McCain in the seat of the world's largest naval installations — the district includes Virginia Beach and parts of Norfolk and Hampton Roads.

As a Democrat in a conservative district, Nye faces an undeniably uphill battle this year. But over the past two years, he has done his best to maintain an advantage. A former foreign-service officer who served in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan during wartime, Nye won the right committee seats for his constituency: Armed Services, including the subcommittee on Seapower and Expeditionary Forces; the House Veterans Committee; and the Small Business Committee. His Tidewater district includes an estimated 110,000 active-duty personnel, not to mention members of the National Guard, reservists and veterans. During the stimulus debate, Nye successfully added a provision that would grant a $2,400 tax credit to any business that hired unemployed veterans.

Nye has been carefully cultivating a conservative Democratic record. He joined the fiscal-conservative Blue Dog group and voted against climate-change legislation, the President's 2010 budget and health care reform. National Journal rates him 45.3% liberal and 54.7% conservative based on his votes. He seems to be following in the footsteps of Owen Pickett, a popular conservative Dem who represented the district for 14 years before retiring in 2000. Pickett survived the 1994 GOP wave year with 59% of the vote, but by then he had six years under his belt to build his reputation as a powerful advocate for the district's military interests. Nye, by contrast, has to pull off the same feat with just two years of experience.

Still, he has gotten some unexpected help from 2nd District Republicans, who had a nasty primary in May. Car dealer Scott Rigell, who received an M.B.A. from Pat Robertson's Regent University (which is in the district), faced off against Navy veteran and Cuban refugee Ben Loyola. Loyola hit Rigell for donating $1,000 to Obama's presidential campaign in March 2008, a move Rigell defended as having been made to counter Hillary Clinton rather than support Obama. Loyola, who put $939,200 of his own money into the race, enjoyed the support of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, who hails from Virginia's 7th District. Rigell had the backing of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Drake and other social conservatives in the district. He, too, put more than $900,000 of his own money into the primary, eking out a victory of 39% to Loyala's 27% in a five-way race. Nye enters the final stretch with a slight money advantage: as of June 30, he had $961,000 in the bank, vs. Rigell's $627,000.

While the district is 19% military, it is also 22% black, and Nye in large part owes his seat to record African-American turnout. The problem is that those same voters did not get out last year for the gubernatorial election, when McDonnell carried the district with 62% of the vote. Nye is hoping the Democratic National Committee's big push to turn out 2008 first-time voters again this cycle will be successful. But he remains one of the most imperiled Democrats in a year when the tide is turning against Dems.