Virginia Beach is home to Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University. Its burgeoning suburbs are of full of young, prosperous families with children. Its resort communities are full of affluent retirees. Nearby Norfolk houses America’s Atlantic Fleet and is the largest naval station in the world. The broader Hampton Roads region encompasses Langley Air Force Base, Oceana Naval Air Station, and numerous other military installations. Its total community of active-duty and retired military numbers in the many hundreds of thousands.
In other words, this area would appear to be natural territory for Republicans. The 2nd Congressional District, encompassing Virginia Beach and parts of Norfolk and surrounding communities, went 58 percent for George W. Bush in 2004. It voted 55-45 that year for Thelma Drake, the Republican replacement for former U.S. Rep. Ed Schrock, who didn’t even have a Democratic foe in 2002. And yet this year, Drake is running neck-and-neck in the polls with Democratic nominee Phil Kellam, who is Virginia Beach’s elected revenue commissioner.
Virginia’s 2nd District may not make the list of the top ten competitive races in the country this year, but it’s not too much farther down the list. The fact that the race is so tight tells us several important things: 1) Democrats have a chance this cycle not just to eke out the barest of majorities by picking off U.S. House districts in blue states but also to compete aggressively for congressional seats in red territory; 2) national party committees and quasi-independent groups are calling more of the shots in campaigns than they used to; and 3) one shouldn’t discount the potential competitiveness of races by an only cursory glance at district lines and demographics.
On the first point, it is important not to oversell the notion that Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads “should” be Republican, particularly given recent events and the specific candidates involved. Drake, a former state legislator running this year for her second full term in Congress, is still “virtually a newcomer” in the eyes of much of the 2nd District, said Joel Rubin, a former television reporter and public-relations consultant who hosts a political talk show on Norfolk’s ABC affiliate. Kellam’s name is actually more familiar to many voters, in part because he is an elected official in what is by far the district’s major population center — Virginia Beach — and in (larger) part because the Kellam family has filled the ranks of the city’s political leadership for half a century. Indeed, the candidate’s uncle, Sidney Kellam, basically helped to create modern Virginia Beach in the 1950s by pushing a bill in the general assembly to merge the then-tiny town with Princess Anne County to block annexation by then-dominant Norfolk. He was part of Virginia’s legendary Byrd political machine. Richard Kellam, Sidney’s brother and Phil’s father, spent nearly three decades as a prominent federal judge. When you drive from the peninsula across to Virginia’s Eastern Shore (also part of the 2nd District), you are driving on the Lucius J. Kellam Jr. Bridge-Tunnel. Many Virginia Beach students attend Floyd E. Kellam High School. A popular guide to local historical homes was co-written by Sadie Kellam and Hope Kellam. Get the idea?
Drake, on the other hand, is from the sliver of Norfolk contained within the 2nd District — an area that represents less than 20 percent of the electorate. The notion that the 2nd District ought to be represented by someone from Virginia Beach — and perhaps even by someone named Kellam from Virginia Beach — is “really important for a lot of voters,” Rubin said, including some who may be used to voting for and giving money to Republicans.
This is a prime example of the dictum that all politics is local. National issues are still the major subject matter of such races, of course, but voters choose candidates, not platforms. In the 2nd District, they are choosing between Kellam, an attractive politician and family man whose grasp of the issues often seems shaky, and Drake, whose strengths are mastering policy details and presenting a commanding, though not always telegenic, appearance in public events and televised forums. Kellam “was a horrible candidate in the debates,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, saying he was “unprepared” and “seeming to stumble around.” Color Rubin as also underwhelmed by Kellam’s public performances to date. “This race has been really dispiriting in my view — I expected better out of Phil Kellam,” given his background and credentials, Rubin said.
Drake also enters the last couple of weeks of the 2006 campaign with a significant advantage in cash on hand: about $700,000 for Drake and only $160,000 for Kellam as of September 30.The real picture on campaign finances is a bit murkier than the campaign reports reveal, however, because of the significance of independent expenditures by both GOP-leaning and Democratic-leaning groups. MoveOn.org actually began spending money in the 2nd District race back in the spring, and Democratic campaign committees have followed suit. The attack ads, some run independently and others run by Kellam’s campaign but financed from outside, have tried to link Drake to the Foley scandal, accused her of voting against the interest of military veterans, and trumpeted her having voted “97 percent of the time” with President Bush. A Democratic group called Majority Action attacked Drake on stem-cell research with an ad in which a woman said into the camera: “Why did Congresswoman Drake bet my life she knows best?” (Like most Republicans, she voted for funding adult-stem-cell research but against funding research using embryonic stem cells, a distinction never made in the ad.) Another memorable commercial, from MoveOn.org, claimed that Drake has been caught “red-handed” in collusion with oil companies. Drake has, indeed, come out for exploratory drilling off the east coast, an idea that horrifies environmental extremists but has become increasingly attractive to voters as a way to alleviate pressure on gas prices and promote energy independence.
The MoveOn.org intervention may not have worked out to Kellam’s advantage. For one thing, it prompted Republican leaders and GOP-leaning groups to head to the 2nd District to buttress Drake with fundraising and independent expenditures of their own. Moreover, it led to a highly publicized Republican complaint to the Federal Elections Commission that Kellam had illegally coordinated his campaign with the independent expenditure (though the supporting evidence, that he received emails from MoveOn.org, is not exactly Law & Order worthy). Mainly, what the episode revealed to Virginia voters is that much more was going on than just a contest between a freshman Republican congresswoman and a local Democratic officeholder with a famous name. “Kellam tried to be a stealth candidate, but the MoveOn crowd blew his cover,” said Jim Hoeft, a public-relations specialist in the district who blogs and podcasts at BearingDrift.com. He and a number of other conservative bloggers have played an interesting role in the 2nd District race, as have a smaller but vocal number of local Democratic-leaning blogs. While the national campaign committees and interest groups have done their own thing from the top down, eroding the ability of the Drake and Kellam campaigns to control their day-to-day message, so have the bloggers from below helped frame the issues for their growing base of daily readers (including opinion leaders such as party activists, potential donors, and reporters).
Most observers agree that the Drake-Kellam race has gotten nasty. Kellam has called Drake “deceptive,” “unethical,” and a Bush administration “sycophant,” and his allies have said or whispered far worse. After the initial MoveOn.org attacks earlier in the year, Drake’s supporters came out swinging, too. For example, a few weeks ago Hoeft was the first to post on his blog that Kellam had pled guilty in an assault case while a college student in North Carolina nearly 30 years ago (it seems to have been in the course of an altercation after a traffic accident, and the result was a prayer-for-judgment, not a courtroom conviction).
But there are also some substantive issues being discussed. Drake has called for a radical (and welcome) restructuring of the federal tax code and for reforming the management of the U.S. House. She has challenged Kellam effectively on Bush’s terrorist-surveillance policies, which the Democrat has criticized. For his part, Kellam has touted his record of simplifying local taxes and promised to pursue more federal transportation assistance for the traffic-clogged Hampton Roads area. He’s also been trying to capitalize on voter uncertainty about the local economy, which is good on the numbers, but is nevertheless the subject of widespread worries about issues such as a troubled Ford manufacturing plant and the potential relocation of Oceana Naval Air Station.
On the Iraq War, Drake has been forthright in defending the original mission while criticizing some aspects of the administration’s post-war policy, such as disbanding the Iraqi army. It will be tough, she tells audiences, but America “is on the right path” to succeed if it perseveres. Kellam has been careful not to criticize the mission itself or call for a specific timetable for withdrawal, but he argues for a greater willingness on the part of Congress to question administration strategy. In a district full of veterans and family members with troops deployed overseas, candidates have to be careful how they couch their views on the war — avoiding either the trap of blasting the mission or the trap of seeming to downplay its human cost.
There are two other factors outside of the control of either the Drake or Kellam campaigns that are worth a mention. One is the other hot Virginia race, the Senate contest between George Allen and Jim Webb. The fact that it has turned out to be much closer than people thought it would be six months ago will arguably work to the advantage of Kellam, since Democratic voters who might otherwise lack the motivation to turn out this year may now be paying close attention and hopeful that their participation will help yield a surprise Webb victory. On the other hand, there is a referendum on the Virginia ballot this year to approve a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. While I’m not convinced by all the hoopla that gay-marriage referenda truly played a key role in boosting Republican turnout in 2004, a presidential year after all, this off-year contest is obviously different, particularly amid GOP concerns that the Foley mess may have turned off some culturally conservative voters. The marriage amendment may well boost Drake’s number by a point or two above what it otherwise would have been — perhaps what it will take to win.
That Kellam is in striking distance of Drake in the 2nd District is not just a reflection of his pedigree or the major issues this year. It is also a reminder that things are not always what they seem. In 2005, Democrat Tim Kaine won a majority of the area’s voters in his race for governor. The governor he replaced, Democrat Mark Warner, was also popular here (and indeed is about to star in a new Kellam ad). Former Republican Rep. Ed Schrock may have coasted to victory in 2002, but he first won election in 2000 by only a 52-48 margin. Virginia Beach voters who lean Republican on defense and family issues have frequently been persuaded to vote Democratic on issues, such as education, that Republicans have yet to contest effectively — and, it’s important to keep in mind, “a lot of those Republicans who supported Drake and Schrock have already voted for Kellam — for local office,” said Kidd, the political scientist. “It’s not that much of a stretch.” Finally, for all the talk about the importance of military-family voters in the district, the reality is that many of them are recent transplants to Virginia, registered in other states, too busy to pay close attention to politics — or busy fighting the bad guys across the sea.
For lots of reasons, this race remains too close to call.
—John Hood is a syndicated columnist and president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina.