In President Obama's Backyard, Tightening U.S. House Race a Bellwether

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"Folks, Gerry Connolly taking credit for creating jobs is like a fan in the stands at Redskins Park saying he threw the touchdown pass," Fimian said at the debate. "He calls himself today a pragmatic moderate, but he's voted with [Democratic House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi 97 percent of the time."

Fimian, who has the support of tea party groups, is reluctant to call himself a "tea party candidate," choosing the label "young gun" instead. But he still possesses some of the rough-and-tumble edginess of tea party candidates nationwide.

Connolly said his optimism for the race is rooted in the belief that voters will ultimately see his opponent as "extreme."

He has been airing an ad attacking Fimian's plan to link congressional pay to a series of penalties and incentives ("bonuses") to encourage fiscal discipline. He has also derided Fimian's disbelief in global warming and opposition to abortion, even in instances of rape.

"I would just say to this audience, you know, if you know anyone who's ever had a rape and actually got pregnant from it, the last thing in the world that woman wants to do in most cases is carry that baby to term," Connolly said at the debate.

"I believe a life is a life. It's just what I believe. I will not retreat from that," Fimian said.

If Fimian can pull off a win over Connolly, it might signal a much broader shift of party control in the U.S. House. Democrats lost 52 seats in the 1994 wave election that gave Republicans majority control.

Some political prognosticators, including Sabato and The Cook Political Report's Charlie Cook, see Democrats at risk of losing 60 or more.

"In any election year that looks like this, where the president's approval rating is as low as it is, where approval of Congress is as low as it is, any party that is in power is going to have trouble. The way we look at it right now is this is at least as bad as it was in 1994. My guess is it's worse," Republican strategist and pollster Steve Lombardo said.

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