House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, an overwhelming favorite to win re-election in his congressional race, received a tongue-lashing from Democratic challenger Wayne Powell during a rare debate appearance Monday night in Virginia.
Powell hit the Republican stalwart with an assortment of "zingers."
"You're so far removed from reality," he told Cantor, "I don't think you even know what a small business is except for a hedge fund," and spent much of the night seeking to cast the incumbent as a corporate pawn hopelessly beholden to a small group of big donors.
"I am really surprised to be here," Powell, a retired Army colonel and first-time candidate, confessed to the audience after introducing himself at the open.
But the mood thickened as he and Cantor began to take questions on the coming "fiscal cliff," the result of an August 2011 congressional bargain that raised the debt ceiling but also put into place $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, or "sequestration," and tax hikes that would be triggered if no new deficit reduction plan is agreed on by early 2013.
Virginia could lose as many as 136,000 jobs, according to a George Mason University study, if Congress fails to meet its self-imposed deadline, which Cantor said he opposed even after helping push it through the House.
"Mr. Powell keeps saying that I supported the sequester," the majority leader said. "As he knows good and well, that's not true. The president insisted on its insertion into the debt-ceiling deal."
"It's the blame game," Powell shot back. "'It's Mr. Obama's problem.' No, it's Mr. Cantor's problem, it's the Congress's problem. They created the budget."
The debate, sponsored by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and hosted in heavily Republican Goochland County, will likely be the last time the candidates share a stage. Powell has asked for two more meetings, but Cantor, who is in line to win a seventh term in the state's seventh district, is unlikely to accept his invitation.
So Powell took his shots while he could. After Cantor laid out how he saw Mitt Romney's proposed tax cuts package benefitting small businesses, the Democrat accused him of advocating for business owners at the expense of their employees.
"He never talks about working people, he only talks about business people," Powell said. "These people are suffering. I see them all the time."
Cantor, who won his last re-election race by 25 points, maintained his genteel bearing throughout the hour-long encounter, never straying from the party line, especially on taxes.
President Obama's economic policies, which he tied to Powell at every opportunity, forged a "path to higher taxes, more regulation and, frankly, less jobs and more dependency," Cantor said, before adding, more pointedly, that "these kind of attacks don't get things done."
"These aren't attacks," an incredulous Powell replied, "they're descriptions. I'm describing you."