WASHINGTON, Oct. 18, 2010 -- Just how big is the impending Republican wave expected on Nov. 2? One bellwether could be the tightening U.S. House race in President Obama's own backyard.
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly has represented Virginia's 11th District, across the Potomac River from the White House, since January 2009, cultivating what he calls a reputation as a pragmatic moderate.
In 2008, when Obama swept the Virginia 11th with 57 percent of the vote, Connolly defeated his Republican opponent, businessman Keith Fimian, by 12 points.
But in midterm election seeping with anti-incumbent and anti-government sentiment, a repeat match-up between Connolly and Fimian is looking much tighter.
"I don't know that it's close," Connolly said in an interview. "It's always been a competitive race. This is a very swing district. So you can't take anything for granted."
Neither candidate has released details of their internal polling. And no independent pollsters have tracked the race. Still, several nonpartisan political strategists have pegged the race a toss-up.
"It's very, very close and my polling shows me up," said Fimian in an interview before a debate in Fairfax County last week. "[Connolly's] polling shows the same thing which is why he isn't releasing anything."
The Virginia 11th, one of the wealthiest districts in the country, is a must-win for Democrats if they want to retain a majority in the House -- and by many measures it should be a district they can hold.
The suburban Washington district has relatively low unemployment, at half the national average, and is home to thousands of federal government employees and their families who are less inclined to eschew the government programs or spending that sustains many livelihoods.
"But it's the congressional district in Virginia most responsive to waves," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "It was built to be winnable by either party."
Voters there tend to be highly-educated, socially liberal, and fiscally conservative, polls show.
Still, Sabato noted that the fact that a conservative, tea party-backed candidate, who was rejected by voters two years ago, could now have Connolly under pressure is a sign to national Democrats of what could be coming.
"Fimian may be too far to the right for that very moderate district, but even candidates who are ideologically unsuited to a district can get elected in the right set of circumstances," he said.
The struggling economy, record high deficit and diminished popularity of President Obama haven't helped Connolly, or many of his peers who also voted for the stimulus, health care bill and "cap and trade."
Connolly has tried to distance himself from the administration, talking not about his votes on government programs but on his belief the Bush tax cuts should be wholly extended.
"I oppose the White House and leadership of my party on the issue of taxes because ... I think to raise taxes at this time would have a contractionary impact on the economy," Connolly said at a debate last week at the Vienna Tysons Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, Fimian has accused Connolly of being a "career politician" who can't escape his ties to the country's current social and economic landscape.
"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.