Politics & Policy

Conservatives Contending in Virginia

Both GOP candidates for the 11th CD are strong conservatives. Which one is the better bet to unseat the Democratic incumbent?

On Tuesday, Republican primary voters in northern Virginia will select a congressional candidate who will be part of the GOP’s attempt to recapture the House of Representatives in November. Their choice is between Keith Fimian, a businessman who has run a home-inspection company for 24 years — and who made an unsuccessful bid for this seat in 2008 — and Pat Herrity, a Fairfax County supervisor. The victor will take on first-term Democratic representative Gerry Connolly.

Virginia’s 11th congressional district includes large portions of Fairfax County and Prince William County. The Capital Beltway cuts through its prosperous suburbs. It is a swing district whose voters have a knack for picking winners: A majority cast their ballots for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Then they switched to Barack Obama in 2008. In last fall’s gubernatorial election, they preferred the Republican, Bob McDonnell, who won. For many years, moderate Republican Tom Davis represented the district in the House. When he retired, Democrat Gerry Connolly defeated Fimian to succeed him.

“A conservative can win this seat,” says Isaac Wood, who covers House races for Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “But it depends on voter turnout. It will take an increase in GOP voters in November.”

Fimian and Herrity are both regarded as economic and social conservatives. Both have called for repealing the new federal health-care legislation and for passing new tax cuts. They are both pro-life, opposed to gay marriage, and in favor of gun rights.

They also both believe that Connolly is the wrong representative for the district. “He has never created a job,” says Fimian. “He has voted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 97 percent of the time,” says Herrity.

The key question is which of the two has a better shot at defeating Connolly. Herrity has strong name recognition because he serves on the Fairfax County board of supervisors, as his father did before him. Fimian enjoys a fundraising advantage and boasts of having created hundreds of jobs in the private sector.

Herrity has strong support among the state’s Republican politicians. He has more than 30 state and local elected officials and candidates in his corner, including Dave Albo and Jackson Miller, who serve in the Virginia House of Delegates, and Jill Holtzman Vogel, who serves in the Virginia Senate.

“Pat Herrity has a longer history in the district and broader ties to the community,” says Delegate Barbara Comstock. “He is very active in working with the community and in staying in touch with everybody.” Miller insists that Herrity is the better choice: “He has better name recognition. It’s as simple as that.”

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Herrity also draws praise for his experience in public office. Albo has applauded Herrity’s efforts to prevent the Fairfax County School Board from constructing a $130 million administrative office at a time when the county lacked funds to build schools.

Yet Herrity’s work as a supervisor has not gone without criticism. Fimian says that Herrity voted to raise property taxes by 13 percent in 2009, and Board records indicate that Herrity in fact voted to increase the property-tax rate from 92 cents per $100 to $1.04 per $100. Herrity points out, however, that property values in Fairfax County decreased from 2009 to 2010, which means that although the tax rate went up, the tax burden did not. “Keith Fimian is more interested in telling people why not to vote for me than in convincing people to vote for him,” Herrity adds.

Fimian does not have as many local endorsements as Herrity, but his supporters include the state’s new attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli; Rep. Eric Cantor, minority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives; and Morton Blackwell, a Republican national committeeman and head of the Leadership Institute. “He has the fire in his belly,” says Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County board of supervisors.

Fimian himself says, “If businessmen and women like me do not run for Congress, we will ride this ship right over a cliff.”

According to OpenSecrets.org, a spending-watchdog group, Fimian has more than $400,000 on hand, whereas Herrity has a little less than $100,000. Overall, Fimian has raised $938,460, and Herrity has raised $439,797.

“I like both candidates,” says Tom Davis, who has not endorsed either. “Herrity probably has a better shot at winning. He is from Springfield, which is the most Republican part of the Eleventh District. If a GOP candidate carries Springfield and Prince William County, he can win the election.”

Davis, who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee for four years a decade ago, believes this district is roughly the 45th most difficult pickup for the GOP. On that reckoning, if the Republican candidate carries the 11th district, the GOP will control the House of Representatives next year.

In the 2008 race, Connolly beat Fimian 55 percent to 43 percent. Some say this means another Republican deserves a chance in 2010. Others believe the defeat will make Fimian a stronger candidate this year. “Sometimes it takes more than one run to build up a support base,” says Blackwell.

Regardless of whom Republicans select on Tuesday, the GOP will likely unite behind the victorious candidate. Each candidate has pledged to support the other against Connolly in November. As Timothy Edson, Fimian’s campaign manager, puts it, “Gerry Connolly is the biggest uniter in this race.”

– Jesse Naiman, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, is editor-in-chief of The Observer at Boston College.

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